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On Christ and Conquest

A frequent commenter on a few of the reviews of my book on Amazon has made a couple of fresh charges, namely, that I don’t like Jesus and I don’t like Jews. Normally I wouldn’t respond but I think these charges are particularly deceptive and therefore merit correction. First, regarding my identification as a Christian, he writes:

Since John Loftus, who states plainly on his blog that he wants to see Christianity destroyed by the end of the 21st century, recommends Stark’s book and says that he and Stark are “in the same camp” it is pretty clear what is really going on. Stark gives various reasons for being a Christian, but does not mention Jesus Christ as being the central reason. Guys like Stark think they are being really clever or sneakiy [sic.] or something when they try to draw Christians in to [sic.] their system. At least Loftus is UP FRONT about it.

The commenter is making a number of false claims here, claims that are clearly contrary to what I stated in my own response to John Loftus, and contrary to my consistent articulation of my position. First, unlike Loftus, I do not wish to see Christianity destroyed by the end of the 21st century, or by the end of any century. My desire, on the contrary, is to see Christianity mature and thrive. So to claim that my being in the “same boat” as Loftus means that I share his disdain for religion is a malicious lie, one befitting only the most fundamentalist of apologists. I concurred that in some way Loftus and I are in the same boat, and by that I meant that we both acknowledge the human origins of the Bible. But what I clearly stated, and what the commenter blatantly ignored, is that while I concede that Loftus and I are in some sense “in the same boat,” we are, nevertheless, “paddling in different directions.” Loftus is paddling away from religion, and I am paddling toward it.

Second, it is simply not true that I do “not mention Jesus Christ as being the central reason” for my continuing to identify as a Christian. The commenter made the same mistake Loftus made, ignoring that one of the reasons I identify as a Christian is that “I happen to like Jesus, warts and all” (p. 242). I continue to affirm, as detailed in my book (which this commenter supposedly read), that the heart of Jesus’ gospel of justice and peace is a genuine revelation of the divine. Moreover, as detailed in the book, I affirm that for Christians, “Jesus of Nazareth takes pride of place at the center of our ethical and theological reflection” (p. 241). Sounds to me like Jesus is pretty central to my identity as a Christian, wouldn’t you say? In a recent interview, moreover, I stated that in an important sense, “Jesus is foundational” for Christians. I also stated that Christians begin with Jesus, and build on his legacy and teachings.

The commenter may not like the fact that I have some serious disagreements with Jesus, and that’s fine. He’s free not to like that. But to claim that I have not identified Jesus as “central” to my self-identification as a Christian is a bald-faced lie. Thus, his insinuation that I am not being “up front” about what I really believe is also a lie. I have been very clear, and perfectly consistent, on this point.

On the comment thread of another review, this same commenter offered more irresponsible and deceptive remarks:

The references to Israel’s “genocidal” practices ignores the historical situation that Israel existed in, and that was the attempt by the surrounding culture to wipe it from the face of the earth. It is not unlike the situation today, and borders on anti semitism [sic.] since other nations are not held to be “genocidal” when their national leaders say they want to wipe Israel off the map. Ancient Israel fought back. In more recent times, in the World War Two era, the Jews did not fight, and would have been exterminated had not what can be called “genocidal” tactics been applied to a monstrous force which could not be stopped otherwise. Of course, if ancient Israel had not fought, we would not be dealing with any of these issues today, for, as the rabid New Atheist Christopher Hitchens says, “We could have been spared the whole thing.”. [sic.]

First, let’s get one thing straight. When recently certain extremist Muslim leaders have made threats about “wiping Israel off the map,” there isn’t a sane person in the world who didn’t interpret that language as genocidal. Of course, Israel has not been wiped off the map, and so no genocide has occurred, but no one has denied that such language is genocidal. The commenter is delusional to claim otherwise.

Second, the commenter claims that Israel’s wars in the Canaanite conquest were “defensive.” This is a claim he has made repeatedly in response to my book, which he claims to have read. But had he read my book, he would know that I devote several pages to refuting this argument. At the most basic level, Israel’s conquest of Canaan was an aggressive campaign. They didn’t invade Canaan because Canaanites were attacking them first. They invaded Canaan, according to the text, because they were on a mission from God to obliterate the Canaanites, to wipe them off the map, and take their land from them. They’re not called the “conquest” narratives for nuthin’. How this commenter can claim, with a straight face, that an aggressive invasion of foreign territory is somehow “defensive” is beyond my capacity to comprehend. Now, it’s true that a few of the battles are portrayed as defensive, in a certain sense, but let’s get this straight. Why was Israel being attacked by the Canaanites? Were the Canaanites attacking the Israelites for no reason? Um, no. The Canaanites were attacking the Israelites because the Israelites attacked them first. The Canaanites were defending themselves against Israelite aggression! Not the other way around. The text itself is quite plain on this point. It’s just insane to characterize Israel’s conquest of Canaan as “defensive.” As far back as Origen, at least, a clear distinction was made between Israel’s defensive wars, and its genocidal conquests. Origen said that the defensive wars were morally permissible, but the genocidal conquests, if taken literally, were morally condemnable. Moreover, even if we were to concede that, somehow, Israel’s wars in Canaan were “defensive,” that hardly justifies the wholesale slaughter of women and children! Were they worried an army of toddlers was going to wipe them out? Give me a break! This isn’t modern warfare. Israel wasn’t carpet bombing cities. They fought armies outside the cities, and then went in, allegedly on Yahweh’s orders, and slaughtered all of the non-combatants, including women and children, after the warriors had been defeated. And let’s not forget that these were their orders even before they entered Canaan in the first place! That’s not a defensive war. That’s aggression. That’s genocide.

I stated in my book that one of the problems with our Scriptures is that they teach us to reason just like war criminals, just like the modern perpetrators of genocide we love to loathe. This commenter has proven my point splendidly. Well done!

As for his reference to Christopher Hitchens, what this commenter is doing is attempting to insinuate that because I disapprove of Israel’s genocides, I must want to see Israel wiped off the face of the earth. This is malicious deceit, not worthy of the name Christian, but typical of fundamentalist apologists. It’s disheartening and sad to see that some people’s grasp on their religion is so feeble that they have to resort to these sorts of deceitful and underhanded tactics to “score points” for their cause. But this whole line of reasoning is based on the spurious assumption that Israel was in danger of being wiped out, had they not slaughtered Canaanite babies. But the reality is, despite what the conquest narratives tell us, the actual history of Israel’s emergence in Canaan was not very violent at all. Israelites were Canaanites. There was no mass exodus out of Egypt, and their was no grand conquest into Canaan. The archaeological record is unequivocal on these points. Thus, it is simply not true that Israel had to kill women and children in order to survive. And anyone who claims the wholesale slaughter of children is necessary in order to survive needs to get their head checked and their propaganda meter re-calibrated.

In short, yes, Israel committed genocide. No, they didn’t have to do so in order to survive. Yes, I condemn the positive portrait of genocide painted in the Bible. No, that doesn’t make me anti-Semitic. After all, the Canaanites were Semites too. (Or doesn’t this commenter realize?) So when I’m sticking up for the Canaanite babies, I’m pro-Semite all the way.

Biblical Condemnations of Human Sacrifice

Michael Manos has asked a very good question in response to my fifth chapter (on human sacrifice in the Bible):

Certainly there are many who would cite other verses (perhaps most importantly Deuteronomy 12:31 and 18:10), which indicate that Yahweh did indeed prohibit Israel from making child sacrifices. What do we make of these verses?

In other words, if my argument is that certain texts in the Bible show that human sacrifice was sanctioned by Yahweh in certain periods, what about those texts where human sacrifice is clearly condemned. Mike has cited the two clear condemnations of human sacrifice from the Pentateuch. The answer to his question is very simple, and I really should have made the answer clearer in the book.

Most of Deuteronomy is dated by scholars to the period of King Josiah. The Deuteronomistic Historian was one who was writing to reinforce the interests of King Josiah. By the time he wrote, Jeremiah had already condemned child sacrifice; thus, the institution of human sacrifice had already begun to fall into disrepute. So when child sacrifice is condemned in Deuteronomy, that reflects a later time period than that of King Mesha or Micah, etc. I allude to this in footnote 8 on p. 93. I discuss King Josiah’s reforms briefly on pp. 147-49. I also discuss his reforms and their relationship to the Deuteronomistic Historian at greater length in my review of Douglas Earl’s book on Joshua. See also Susan Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible, for a fuller explanation of the Deuteronomistic Historian’s opposition to the Israelite institution of human sacrifice. To anyone unfamiliar with JEDP, it may seem like scholars just cherry pick when they like to date what verses, but the dating of the Deuteronomistic Historian is set firmly to the Josianic period, with some minor revisions during the exile a few decades later, for reasons that have nothing to do with human sacrifice. For a very accessible introduction to the dating of the various pentateuchal sources, see Richard Elliot Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?

In short, human sacrifice is condemned in Deuteronomy because most of Deuteronomy was was written after human sacrifice fell into disrepute among the Judean elites in the seventh century BCE. But earlier sources show that human sacrifice was long considered to be an acceptable and noble part of Yahweh worship in Israel and Judea. This is another example of what I display in the first chapter of my book—namely, that the Bible is comprised of a number of positions that are in direct contention with one another. The Bible is an argument with itself.

Response to Undercover Heretic Review

Undercover Heretic has reviewed my book in two parts (one, two) and has also engaged my thought in a number of posts (here, here, here, and here. (Or just click here for a list of all of them.)

My thanks to Undercover Heretic for his careful and insightful engagement with my book. In the second part of his review, Undercover Heretic raises a number of questions about the implications of my argument and posits what he thinks my answers might be. He contributes to a sharp clarification of my position by identifying it, in contrast to the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, as a prima scriptura hermeneutic. In other words, though the Bible is not our only resource, it is unique in that it stands as our first resource, or our starting point for moral and theological reflection. I think this is a great way of articulating my position.

UH goes on, then, to ask, “Does God speak through other texts to the same degree, or in the same way? If so, what would that mean? Is there anything more than its first-off-the-shelf nature that makes scripture different? Could it also be that its uniqueness consists in the fact that the church has turned to this resource for the last 1500 years? Are these even important questions to ask?”

Last question first. Yes, I think they are very important questions to ask. Penultimate question second. Yes, a large part of its uniqueness is that the church has turned to it throughout its long history. This may seem silly to some. If the Bible is so problematic, why should we take seriously the long tradition of the Bible’s authority in the life of the church? Hasn’t the church just been duped? But my response is that to casually dispense with such a longstanding tradition is to do no justice to our constitution as traditioned beings. The Bible has so shaped us, that to just disregard it based on our understanding of its problems would be to hide from our view the sources of our worldview. If we were to cut ourselves off from those sources, we would be blinding ourselves. Our traditions are so intertwined with the biblical narratives and teachings that to cut the Bible out of our purview would be tantamount to denying that our traditions and institutions require self-critical engagement. Thus, to hold the Bible in close proximity and to critically engage it is to be committed to a critical engagement with ourselves. Leaving the Bible behind would just be a massive dishonesty.

It’s like the son who realizes how screwed up his father is. To disown his father would be to blind himself to the traits and inclinations he has inherited (genetically, behaviorally) from his father—it would be to doom himself to repeat his father’s mistakes. We cannot deny that we are children of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures without dooming ourselves to repeat history. The son who, realizing his father’s problems, chooses rather to confront them, both in his father and in himself, will grow, have a better shot at conquering those weaknesses, and perhaps even learn to recognize his father’s strengths as well. Only by remaining committed to engaging our sources can we find the courage not to duplicate their failures as well as the courage to be inspired by their successes. Finally, the Bible certainly isn’t a total failure. There is much to glean positively from its pages, and if we can get over ourselves for a minute, if we can get over our sense of betrayal, we’ll be able to appropriate its best insights constructively. There is foolishness and wisdom in the Bible, and it would be a tragedy to miss the wisdom because we’ve reacted so strongly against the foolishness.

So in that sense, the Bible is “unique” for us in the same way that a father is unique to a son. There are many fathers in this world, but only one or two of them are mine.

That said, the Bible is unique in a number of ways, and its prophetic tradition of socio-political critique and its visions of the just society, while not perfect and not wholly unique, contain particularly profound insights that we would be damned fools to ignore. So the Bible is valuable, both for what is has to tell us through its failures and its successes. But we have infinite sources to branch out into for wisdom and insight. And because we’re Christians, we begin with the Bible. Now, other sources can help us to find weaknesses in our traditional sources, but it’s also true that our traditional sources can help us to identify weaknesses in new sources. No source is perfect, none infallible or inerrant. The best process we have for figuring out what’s true and good is a critical conversation between sources, a pooling of humanity’s best insights and worst blunders. We’re all in this together, and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can make real progress together.

UH also raises another important question about the content of my book—the practical one:

as a pastor, how in the world do I begin to move people’s thinking in this direction, especially in a particular culture that has such a strong docetic view of the Bible? I can see it now: on Sunday I preach about David and Goliath; in the midst of the sermon I pause to make the historical and exegetical case that such a story probably didn’t actually occur; I then urge my listeners to rise above the boiling anger in their heart that is tempting them to erupt from their seats and strangle me on the spot and to instead creatively consider what God might be teaching them through this story of propaganda. Yeah, that clearly isn’t going to work. I realize this is a different type of question altogether, and that the answer probably involves something like a long, slow process of baby steps that will take the passing of a generation before one witnesses any noticeable results.

Yeah, I certainly don’t have the answers here, but this is the right question. While I’m hopeful that many Christians have been waiting to have just this kind of discussion, the reality is that many are mortified by such a discussion, and many will react with hostility to it. This is not because they are necessarily hostile people, but because these critical questions cut right to the heart of Christians’ sense of identity and challenge the sources that have been solely responsible for giving meaning to our lives. This is no small matter, and all sorts of demons will begin to manifest as we attempt to shed light on our assumptions and institutions. I have to be honest: there are some contexts and some churches where critical questions like this will never be able to gain a hearing. In a scary real sense, fundamentalism is not an aberration but is grounded in our very constitution as human beings. It’s not just ideological; it’s also biological. So I don’t think it’s going anywhere. Our brains need answers and our psyche needs to defend those answers to the death. We’re biologically conditioned to be afraid of anything that looks or sounds different from us.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story, thank God. While human beings are fundamentalists by nature, we also have an extraordinary capacity for empathy (also part of our biological makeup), and I think empathy is the key to overcoming fundamentalism. The ability to empathize with others can lead us to a place where we are able to live together in ambiguity. If fundamentalism is a human condition, it’s a human condition that developed as a response to a more basic human condition: uncertainty. Like the Bible, the human being is an argument with itself. And I think our species’ capacity for empathy is the key that opens the cage of fundamentalism allowing us to enter our more basic human condition. Fundamentalism developed as a survival mechanism, and it’s here to stay. It’s in our constitution. But we can overcome it because while we are fearful creatures, we are also empathetic creatures, who have the capacity to be rational. Fear is an emotion which militates against our rationality, while empathy is an emotion which frees up rationality to do its work. When we’re rational we recognize that we don’t know why we’re here. Actually, it begins with “I.” (Sorry postmodernists.) I don’t know why I’m here, and if that’s true, then it follows that nobody does. So we’re all in the same boat. And if we can come to see that, then we can put our imaginations together and try to figure out how best to live together given the brute fact of our existence.

So, while I don’t have a systematic answer to offer a pastor who wants to figure out how to teach this stuff to his church, I do think the most practical place to begin is to teach empathy—to develop empathy as a virtue in our congregations. We’re fighting a war against fundamentalism, which is a war against ourselves, and empathy is our best, and probably our only, weapon.

Response to John Loftus Review

First, I’d like to thank John Loftus for taking the time to write such a strong review (click here to read it), and for caring enough about the material to make the criticisms he’s made. Thanks, John.

But I’d like to respond to his criticisms, because I think many of them reflect a misunderstanding of my language or, in some cases potentially, a misrepresentation of my arguments. The easiest way for me to respond is piecemeal, so I’ll do it that way.

Because John Loftus shares a name with one of the Gospel writers, I’ll refer to him by his surname, rather than his Christian name. [insert laughter here]

Loftus said: Chapter eight argues that Jesus was wrong about the end of the world. It did not take place as he predicted. In this chapter Stark says of my chapter on this topic in “The Christian Delusion” that “the claims made [by] Loftus cannot be ignored by Christians.’” I liked that.

I just want to clarify that although I certainly do think every Christian should read Loftus’s chapter on Jesus’ apocalyptic expectations, that does not mean I endorse his overall conclusion. Loftus quotes my footnote from p. 168. But on p. 207, I ask whether Loftus is correct that, in his words, “at best Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet.” On that page, I do not offer an answer but I do offer my response in the final (tenth) chapter of my book, where I state clearly that I believe Jesus, while indeed a failed apocalyptic prophet, was much more than that, and that all of his teachings should not be dismissed just because some missed the mark. I am very critical of Jesus’ apocalypticism in that chapter, but I also highlight the aspects of his apocalypticism that are beneficial, in my estimation. I also point out that not all of Jesus’s teachings can be traced to apocalyptic roots, and that other facets of his teaching are valuable. So, while I agree with many of John’s conclusions about Jesus’ apocalyptic expectations and failed predictions, I disagree with John that Jesus was nothing more than a failed apocalyptic prophet and should be totally disregarded.

Loftus said: My problem is why such a god inserted these texts into his revelation if they are to be condemned? This just does not make sense to me at all. What’s more probable? That God did this, and along with it allowed believers for centuries to think they were pleasing him for these kinds of acts, or that the Bible is a man-made product written by ancient barbaric superstitious agency detectors? You know my choice.

I can easily explain why this doesn’t make sense to Loftus. It doesn’t make sense to him because what he thinks is my position isn’t my position at all. I never said that God inserted the condemned texts into the Bible to teach us about us. I fully concur with Loftus that these are manmade artifacts offered in Yahweh’s name. The title of my book is “the human faces of God” precisely because I argue that these texts don’t come from God at all. So when Loftus says that it doesn’t make sense for me to conclude that God inserted condemned texts into our scriptures, I fully concur—which is why that’s not my conclusion. When I say that these texts are revelatory, I do not mean that God put them there. I mean what I said: we put them there and therefore they reveal “us” to us. And “us” is something we all need to see. Thus, their scriptural value is not as revelations from God, but as (generally unwelcome) reminders to us about human nature and our perennial capacity to do evil in the name of good, or our tendency to wait for the big fix from above rather than work toward a solution together from below. These sorts of problems with the text are revelatory. When I speak of “God speaking through the text,” I do not mean that God put those texts there. We did. But I think that God can still speak through our bullshit if we’re willing to listen—and that requires a posture of self-criticism.

I also concur with Loftus that the ancient Israelites had barbaric superstitions, but (and I think he would agree) I don’t for a second think that the ancient Israelites and the Bible can be dismissed in such a fashion whole cloth. The Bible and Israelites aren’t special in that regard. Every culture has much to teach us, both through positive and negative example.

Loftus said: But if we have these resources what do we need faith for at all? What is faith at that point? He’s admitting he gets his beliefs from the same resources I do, except that I deny the Bible has any authority over me along with the Holy Spirit. 😉 He and I are in the same boat.

Here again is a misunderstanding. I think it stems from our different conceptions of what faith is. I don’t believe we need faith in order to figure out what’s moral. Secondly, I never claim that the Bible has or should have authority “over” Christians. I explain how the conception of biblical authority that places the Bible “over” Christians is immature and based in fear. Instead, I argue that, for Christians (not for atheists like John or Buddhists or what have you), the Bible is authoritative “from the ground up.” That is, it doesn’t dictate morality to us: it is our starting point for moral reflection; not necessarily our ending point. And that’s only because we are Christians. I value different traditions and think they all have value, and Christianity is especially valuable in a number of ways, despite its many flaws. So, he doesn’t differ from me in that I think the Bible has authority “over” me and he doesn’t. We agree on that.

Also, he includes the “Holy Spirit” here, but I never said anything about the Holy Spirit having “authority over” anyone; I never spoke of the Holy Spirit in connection to authority at all. I spoke of the Holy Spirit as the source of inspiration that helps us to discern truth as we are willing to look critically at ourselves and sympathetically at those who are different from us. To me, the Holy Spirit is a way of talking about the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of what is right. That doesn’t mean I don’t think there is an actual entity or force that helps us to do this; it also doesn’t mean that I do think there is such an entity or force. There might not be, and there could be, but it is a way of talking about that pursuit that I think is very powerful and affective, and resonates with me despite my profound awareness of the historical contingencies that gave rise to the idea of a “holy spirit” to begin with. As I’ve said many times before, the language of theology is evocative, not descriptive; metaphorical, not scientific. And this leads me to what I mean by “faith.”

To me, if a Christian is certain that God exists and that everything Christianity teaches (whatever brand of Christianity they think is truest) accurately describes metaphysical and physical reality, then they don’t have faith. To think that you can “know” that these things are true is by my definition of faith precisely to reject faith. What faith is by my definition is action based on hope, and hope is a direct response to profound uncertainty. Let’s put it this way. Loftus and I both agree on what resources we should utilize to figure out what the moral thing to do is in a given situation. But for me (and maybe Loftus doesn’t have this problem, and if not, more power to him), what I’m not sure about is whether being moral is itself morally significant. I see people suffering, I want to try and alleviate their suffering, but I struggle with the question of whether my doing so has any point, beyond the obvious one of the immediate alleviation of their suffering. Why is the alleviation of human suffering the right thing to do? If the universe is a cosmic accident (and it may very well be just that), I can’t figure out why human beings should have impetus to behave morally, other than when it helps us to preserve ourselves or our species or to make us happier in some way. When morality conflicts with self-preservation or self-gratification, I just don’t know why morality should win out.

I really don’t know. This isn’t a hypothetical or an argument for the existence of God from the undesirability of a morally absurd universe. The universe may well be completely amoral. I’m afraid it might be. And because I’m human, that troubles me. (I doubt it troubles raccoons.) That doesn’t mean I believe because I’m emotionally weak. Anyone who’s read my book will know, so it’s really no surprise, that I don’t by a longshot believe everything Christianity says is true. But the question is, when I am faced with human suffering, and I set out to alleviate that suffering, is there a point to it? Does it matter, not just in that moment, but in the long run? Does it ultimately matter whether human beings continue to exist or not? I don’t believe that it does. I don’t believe that it doesn’t. I really don’t know whether it does or not. But here’s the point: I earnestly hope that it matters; and when I act on that hope, that is, when I act as if human suffering matters, I am acting in faith. That to me is what faith is. It is action based on hope, which in turn is a direct response to profound uncertainty. If I weren’t profoundly uncertain, I couldn’t hope that our existence has a profound meaning; and if I didn’t have that hope, then I couldn’t have faith (which is action, not assent to metaphysical propositions).

So, I have faith because I really don’t know if any of this has any meaning. But I act like it does, because I hope that it does. I can’t be “wrong” (about this) because I haven’t made a claim one way or the other. And this isn’t Pascal’s Wager. Another thing I really don’t know about: I don’t know if there is a God that sends unbelievers to hell, but I hope that there isn’t. Not because I don’t want to go to hell, but because it would really suck if God turned out to be less just than most humans. I’m not talking about Pascal’s Wager. I’m simply saying that my uncertainty about the meaning of our existence goes so deep that any time I try to do what is right for right’s sake is an act of faith on my part. Maybe others (maybe Loftus) aren’t as profoundly uncertain as I am. Like I said, that’s great for them.

If somebody could show me beyond doubt that the universe is a cosmic accident and everything is ultimately meaningless, then I’ll accept that and find some way to go on, but it’ll be a different way, most likely. I’m not talking about needing a reason to live by rules. I’m not saying that if the cosmos has no meaning then I’d rather blow off my family and party till I’m dead. I’m not talking about that kind of morality. I’m talking about the very core of human endeavor itself.

It may well be that there is no meaning and that we can only create meaning for ourselves. But if that’s the case, then the best I can do is try to create the best meaning, and that’s what I’m already doing. I’m trying to find out what’s good and true and to pursue that. And I think that when it comes to such truths, the processes of “discovery” and the processes of “creativity” are virtually the same processes. All human beings can do is create their own meaning, and hope they got it right. The Bible is the product of such efforts, as are all cultural artifacts. To create meaning and believe in it is, I am convinced, what it means to be human. It’s when we refuse to acknowledge that our creativity is a response to profound uncertainty that it loses its human quality—that’s when we’re trying to be more than what we are, or rather, other than what we are. To be human is to have faith—to act on our hopes which arise consciously in response to our own ignorance and uncertainty.

Loftus said: Stark claims he is a Christian because he was born into that faith by Christian parents. And although he knows his parent’s flaws he is still their son and embraces them. “I am a Christian,” he writes, “because I chose to be a Christian. I am a Christian because I am a white male living in the West…Because I am a Christian, this book we call the ‘Holy Bible’ is uniquely my own. Whether I want it or not, I am stuck with it. Even if I were never to pick it up again, I could never put it down. It has shaped me in irrevocable ways.” (p. 242). He is right. The Bible has indeed shaped him and our culture. It has shaped me too. Should I be called a Christian merely because I’m an American who was born into this culture? What need then is the label Christian? According to his definition everyone born into a Christian culture is de facto a Christian, so long as they say that they are one.

Loftus is making a couple mistakes here. First, he misrepresents me when he suggests that I claim to be a Christian “merely because I’m an American who was born into this culture.” That is not at all the only reason I gave for why I continue to identify as a Christian. In my book, I also spoke of my continued affection for Jesus of Nazareth, despite his many flaws, and in some cases precisely because of his flaws. I have also, in other places, offered further reasons why I continue to identify as a Christian. It is not just because I was born one, and because my culture is predominantly Christian. Second, I never said that anyone born in a Christian culture is a de facto Christian, nor does my “definition” of Christian (as if I have only one definition) necessitate such a claim.

Loftus continues: This plays loose with words, although I have ceased telling people what or who is a Christian. If people like Stark claim to be a Christian who am I to say he isn’t one? It’s just that this stretches our use of language beyond the breaking point. That means I can be a Christian too if I just say that I am. But I deny that I am. So why should I allow such a definition of what it means to be a Christian at all?

I disagree emphatically with Loftus here. I am not at all playing loose with words, nor am I stretching the definition of Christian to the breaking point. Loftus can’t just call himself a Christian and thus become one. But he’s right that in an important sense it is up to each of us to determine how we self-identify. He is not a Christian precisely because, in his own words, he denies that he is a Christian. I am a Christian, in large part, because I choose to so identify. One of the reasons I am a Christian is because it is my cultural heritage; and that is a very important reason. But it’s not the only one. There is also the fact that I have a strong affection for the teachings and activities of Jesus, even if I appropriate his teachings critically. The fact that I am very critical of socialist-democratic literature doesn’t prevent me from identifying as a socialist-democrat. Moreover, just because I identify as a socialist-democrat doesn’t mean that I may not also be able to identify with some other political parties. Socialist-democrat defines me most fully, but I am also Green, Republican, Libertarian, Anarchist, and so on, in significant ways. In the same way, I am a Christian, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also identify as a secular humanist, as an agnostic, a bit as a Muslim, and a Buddhist, and so on, in very significant ways. I continue to identify as Christian because much of the vocabulary and many of the themes of Christianity continue to resonate with me in profound ways, and inspire hope, and therefore action. The fact that I’m aware that that vocabulary may not (and in many cases most probably doesn’t) correspond to an actual metaphysical reality doesn’t make it any less evocative and powerful for me. The way I see it, we have no access to the “right” way to speak about ultimate meaning, and so we are left with nothing but human attempts to do so—some of them helpful, some unhelpful, some of them beautiful, some grotesque. A lot of Christianity continues to resonate with me; but so does some of Islam, and Buddhism, and Native American religions, and so on. And humanism also resonates with me profoundly. But any attempt to attribute ultimate meaning to human endeavors (whether it comes from a televangelist or a secular humanist) is subject to the same intractable problem: we just don’t know that there is any. So rather than to stop talking and acting altogether, I choose to make the best of the vocabulary I know best, and to learn as many new words in as many new languages as I can. If Loftus thinks this makes me a strange candidate for a “Christian,” I’ll readily admit that fundamentalists won’t recognize me as such; but there have been scores of Christians throughout history who have understood very well what I’m articulating here. Despite my many disagreements with him, C.S. Lewis and I can at least agree on this: theological language is poetic. While he believed that Christianity was the best of the poetic expressions of ultimate meaning, he didn’t for a second think that Christian language was anything more than poetry—but it was poetry that strived to articulate a reality humans have no direct access to, if it exists at all.

It is not playing fast and loose with language to describe myself as an English speaker, even though I’m quite aware that “English” does no more to “accurately describe” reality than does Spanish, French, HTML or Binary. Languages are attempts to make sense of our worlds, or to function within them, and just as I can be primarily an English Speaker, but also have pretty good Spanish and be a student of six other languages, I can be predominantly a Christian but also an agnostic, a humanist, a Muslim and a Buddhist.

I’m not describing “pluralism.” I’m not saying that all religions (or non-religions) are ultimately saying the same thing. I’m saying they’re all saying different things (hell, Christianity alone says lots of different things and posits different answers to the same questions), but I have much to learn from what they all have to say. Some may be more right than others, or they may all be equally wrongheaded (I don’t think they are). But the truth is, when it comes to ultimate meaning, the only truth humans can come up with is poetic truth. It’s just like language: a banana isn’t a banana. There isn’t really a name for it. Naming things is what humans do; it’s a very human thing to do. And religion is a way to talk about those aspects of our existence that defy scientific explanation. I’m not talking about a God of the gaps; I’m talking about the sorts of questions that all good scientists acknowledge science can never answer. I think those questions are worth talking about, and there are lots of vocabularies that I find useful for doing so—that of Christianity being the first. Therefore, I am a Christian, among other things. I’m also a Hoosier, and an Aussie, and I wouldn’t be me if I couldn’t be both. But being an Aussie doesn’t commit me to approving of every bad move Australia has ever made geopolitically, any more than being a Christian commits me to approving of everything Christianity has ever said, done, or represented.

Loftus says that “it’s time people like Stark renounce not only the bad in the Bible but also the bad in his Christian culture.” Who says I haven’t renounced the bad in “my Christian culture”? I have, repeatedly, and continue to do so. And that’s part of the reason, as I’ve explained elsewhere, that I continue to identify as a Christian: precisely because I condemn so much that Christianity has done, I feel a moral responsibility and obligation not to pretend like I’m not connected to Christianity, just because I often want nothing further to do with it. That would be like the son of a slave-owner denying that he’s a son and pretending he never benefited from the institution of slavery. There are some positive reasons why I identify as a Christian, but there’re also reasons like this. I have to continue to identify as a Christian, if my condemnation of Christianity’s many sins is going to have any moral weight. At least, that’s how I see it. Loftus is free to have a different perspective. But he is mistaken if he thinks that in order to condemn the bad bits of “Christian culture” I must condemn it whole cloth.

But that’s what troubles me about his repeated calls for a “more democratic” society—they ring somewhat hollow to me because he doesn’t seem to have room in his mind for an approach to religion in which religion is open, democratic, and more about questions than answers. He says I need to be willing to condemn “my Christian culture,” as if I haven’t done so, but the truth is, I don’t think there should be a “Christian culture,” at least not a meta-culture. I think there should be various Christian sub-cultures, but I believe that societies should be pluralistic, and that is the only way that they will ever be democratic. If Loftus thinks there will ever be a human society that can be both atheistic and democratic at the same time, I think he’s gravely mistaken. To me, that’s like saying he wants a free society as long as society isn’t free.

Loftus and I both desire a society that is more tolerant, and we both desire a society where fundamentalism is a thing of the past. I think we should work toward that, but that is not the same thing as working toward a society in which there is no religion. And, I need to be quick to add, even though I think we should work toward a society in which fundamentalism doesn’t make sense, I do not believe such a society is humanly possible, and thus any attempt to actually implement such a society will be an act of inhumanity itself.

All of that said, I think that Loftus and I share substantial agreement about a number of issues, and I thank him sincerely for his engagement. I think it has been fruitful.

Response to Mike Warren Review

I want to thank Mike Warren for taking the time to write his critical review of my book. Despite our substantial disagreements and despite an unfortunate and dismissive tone throughout his review, Mr. Warren has raised a number of issues that are important and I’m glad I have the opportunity to address them in response to him. In this response I will move through Mr. Warren’s review piecemeal, quoting him, and then responding to the pertinent points.

Modern American Christianity is dominated by Pietism, and after pietistic Christians have found the Bible verses that give them their ticket to heaven and God’s comfort through trials until they get there, they don’t pay much attention to the rest of the Bible. If such Christians would ever read a book like this one, they would be an easy target for Stark’s attack on the Bible. Stark was such a target himself at one time. He says that he was raised in the Stone-Campbell movement (e.g. Churches of Christ, Christian Churches/Disciples of Christ), which promotes the typical pietistic slogans like “No Creed but Christ,” “No Book but the Bible,” and “No Law but Love.”

It is unfortunate that Mr. Warren begins his review by insulting the very people he hopes to persuade. Although I have no stake in defending pietism, Mr. Warren’s characterization of American pietism is so polemical and distorted that it tells us much more about Mr. Warren than it does about American pietism. Mr. Warren equates a flowery reading of the nice parts of the Bible and a neglect of the rest with pietism, and suggests that anyone persuaded by my book must not know the Bible very well. He claims that such Christians, in their ignorance, are easy targets for my book. To the contrary, I find that it is often those who are unfamiliar with the Bible who have such a difficult time accepting the arguments I put forward in my book; it is those who cherry pick the verses they like who blindly deny the reality of the conflict within the biblical texts.

Mr. Warren further insinuates that because of my association with the Stone Campbell tradition, I must not be very familiar with the Bible, an alleged fact which explains why I’ve adopted the positions I have. Mr. Warren on this point has alienated any Stone Campbell reader who may have looked to him for reasons to reject my arguments. To suggest that a strictly back-to-the-Bible Protestant tradition like the Stone-Campbell tradition is deficient due to a careless disregard for the Bible displays not the ignorance of Stone-Campbell Christians but of Mr. Warren. These sort of broad, sweeping generalizations and disdainful mischaracterizations of large swathes of American Christians don’t do Mr. Warren any favors, here at the outset of his review, but are unfortunately typical of what is to come throughout.

Of course, though he implies that my deficient views on scripture owe something to my connection to the Stone-Campbell tradition, Mr. Warren has not identified his own Christian tradition, but it is evident from certain remarks that he is likely a Reformed Calvinist. It is humorous to me that someone from a tradition committed to interpreting the Bible only through the filter of later traditions is willing to accuse strict biblicists who strive to come to the Bible on its own terms of flagrant unfamiliarity with the Bible.

Stark starts off the book claiming to find an example of divinely-sanctioned racism in Ezra 9 and 10, where some of the men had married foreign women contrary to the Law of God. Stark claims that “there is no hint in the narrative that the intermarriages posed any threat to genuine Yahwism.” Yet Ezra says that these foreign women “practice these abominations” (9:14) – the same “evil deeds” that caused God to cast the Israelites out the land to begin with (9:13). The original law gave the reason against intermarriage with the seven nations that occupied the land of Canaan as “they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods” (Deut. 7:4). Israelites were free to intermarry with nations other than those seven (Deut. 20:14-18).

Actually, Ezra forbids marriage with the following people groups: “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites” (Ezra 9:1). This list is based on two passages in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 7 and 23. The former mentions all but the Moabites and the Egyptians. Deuteronomy 23 mentions the Moabites, excluding them from the assembly. Deuteronomy 23 also mentions the Egyptians, but in contradiction to Ezra: “You shall not abhor any of the Edomites, for they are your kin. You shall not abhor any of the Egyptians, because you were an alien residing in their land. The children of the third generation that are born to them may be admitted to the assembly of Yahweh.” In the law of Moses, the Israelites are expressly permitted to intermarry with Egyptians! Yet in Ezra, the Egyptians are excluded. Why? Because Ezra was a racial purist. As for the “abominations” mentioned in 9:14, they are not specified, nor is there any instance mentioned of an Israelite being led astray into the practice of non-Yahwistic rites. As I’ve argued extensively in chapter six, the claim that Israelites were not to intermarry with certain tribes because they might lead them astray to worship other gods is undermined by the fact that they are expressly permitted and often commanded to intermarry with certain other people from non-Yahwistic tribes! Clearly it was conceivable that bringing a wife in from a foreign culture was relatively safe, if the wife could be made to conform her worship to the Israelite norm. Yet there is no thought given to this in Ezra. The “abominations” practiced by the people of the land were just foreign religious rites—the same things Israelites did but to different deities. At any rate, see pp. 434-36 in John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, for a cogent discussion of the problem of intermarriage in Ezra and Nehemiah.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy defends the historical-grammatical interpretation of Scripture. To refute this, Stark claims to find some passages that can’t be interpreted using the historical-grammatical method. One is Matthew’s quote of Isaiah 7 that the “the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel” finds fulfillment in the birth of Christ. Stark is unaware that there is a historical-grammatical interpretation that does not ignore the obvious fact that the boy mentioned in Isaiah 7 would be born in Isaiah’s own day, still a youth when the Assyrians would invade, destroying the crops and leaving nothing but curds and honey to eat. And yet the prophecy still applies to Christ because it’s an example of God rescuing a remnant in Israel because of the ancient promise to bless all the nations through Messiah who would descend from Abraham and David. See here for a fuller explanation: http://www.crivoice.org/immanuel.html.

Mr. Warren is being deceptive here. First, he claims I am not aware of the article by Dennis Bratcher when in fact I cite this selfsame article in my book in support of my position. Second, the article by Dennis Bratcher does not say what Mr. Warren claims it says. Bratcher argues (quite rightly) that Matthew uses the Isaiah 7 prophecy analogously to draw out the theme of “God with us.” The reality is, as Bratcher is aware, this is still pesher interpretation and not historical-grammatical. Mr. Warren is grasping at straws here.

Stark also uses Paul’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:4, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” as an example that contradicts the historical-grammatical approach. Paul comments, “Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake. . .” (1 Cor. 9:9-10). The historical-grammatical approach does not exclude reading the Bible with some common sense and logic. Why would God have to command the owner of an ox to feed his income-producing animal that has a high replacement cost? Pure self-interest would take care of that. Using such common sense and logic, Paul reasons analogically from the oxen to humans: If brute beasts should be paid for their work, even though God is not really concerned that they won ‘t be, a fortiori, human laborers should be paid for their work.

Mr. Warren fails to take account of Paul’s language (“it was not written for oxen but for us”) and fails to do justice to the broader hermeneutical context of second temple Judaism that I outline in this section. See also the work of Richard Hays which I cite in my treatment of this text, which is the seminal work on Paul’s use of the Hebrew Bible. I simply used this as one example of Paul’s eschatological (rather than historical-grammatical) hermeneutic. There are myriad examples I could have used. See the relevant literature cited in my book.

Mr. Warren attempts a critique of my treatment of Ezekiel 20:25-26, but fails to do justice both to my argument and to the various texts involved:

Stark makes a big deal about Ezekiel 20:25-26. He claims that it’s an example of an inspired error. He says that it teaches that God commanded the Israelites to kill their first born as sacrifices, even though God condemns it in other places: “I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life, and I defiled them through their very gifts in their offering up all their firstborn, that I might devastate them.” But it doesn’t make sense that by obeying God’s command the Israelites could become “defiled” (v. 26).

Of course it makes sense. God wanted to defile them as punishment, and so he gave them a bad command, according to Ezekiel, but didn’t tell them it was a bad command. It’s not hard to grasp what Ezekiel is saying. Read my treatment of this text in chapter 5 to get the full picture.

Stark claims that this law is to be found in the law of Moses (i.e. Exo. 22:29), but obedience to the law of Moses was intended to make the Israelites more populous and prosperous (Deut. 28), whereas this law is supposed to “devastate them.” And it doesn’t make sense that, despite Starks claim that redactors have changed words, sentences and whole chapters in the Bible, they didn’t notice that in the verses that immediately follow that God condemns child sacrifice (v.31).

Mr. Warren is making a number of mistakes here. First he is conflating different sources (Exod 22 and Deut 28 weren’t written by the same source, and they were written hundreds of years apart). Second, I am not claiming that the authors of the legal material in Exod 22 believed that the command to sacrifice their firstborn was meant to devastate them. My argument is that this is a later interpretation by Ezekiel who is struggling and stretching to dispense with the longstanding tradition of child sacrifice in Israelite religion. Ezekiel is the only one who claims Exod 22:29 was a bad command, given as punishment, rather than given to make them prosper. Originally, the command there to sacrifice the firstborn children to Yahweh was intended to make Israel prosper, because at this stage in Israel’s history, they believed that Yahweh was satiated by human sacrifice. Finally, Mr. Warren seems to be confused with his reference to the fact that Ezek 20:31 condemns children sacrifice. Of course he condemned it! As I argue, his whole interpretation of Exod 22:29 serves the purpose of his condemnation of child sacrifice. He wants to dispense with the institution, and his novel interpretation of Exod 22:29 is his means for doing so. (The fact, therefore, that Mr. Warren thinks v. 31 challenges my thesis shows that he did not understand my clear argument to begin with.) The redactors, who worked after Ezekiel, shared Ezekiel’s disdain for the institution of sacrifice. There would be no reason for them to change this text.1

Mr. Warren then continues, saying, “Of course, his interpretation also contradicts many other passages in which God condemns child sacrifice.” Yes, I am aware of this. That is in fact my argument. The Bible contradicts itself because it was written by different authors who disagreed with each other. He asks, “Isn’t there an interpretation with less problems? There certainly is: God gave them these evil statutes indirectly, by allowing evil rulers to institute these evil statutes (cf. Rom. 1:28).” The trouble is, that is not at all what Ezekiel 20:25-26 says. I understand this is what Mr. Warren wishes Ezekiel says, but the reality is that it is not what Ezekiel says. Ezekiel doesn’t say God gave them the bad command indirectly. He says that God gave them bad commands in the wilderness, because they had been disobedient and he wanted to punish them. Their disobedience preceded God’s giving them bad commands. Read my treatment of the text to see why Mr. Warren’s protestations are in vain.

Chapter 20 of Ezekiel is explaining that the Israelites are being held captive in Babylon as punishment for years of rejecting the law of God, and as 2 Kings 17 recounts in regard to the northern kingdom, burning their children as an offering was one of those unlawful acts. From Jeroboam onward, most Jewish kings offered sacrifices to foreign gods, but child sacrifice is not mentioned until closer to the captivity. Like Pharaoh in his confrontation with Moses, in Ezekiel 20 God is saying that He hardened the hearts of these latter kings to institute child sacrifice as a judgment of depopulation against them for their persistent idolatry.

What Mr. Warren is doing here is just making up the Bible as he goes along. Ezekiel does not say that God hardened the hearts of pre-exilic kings. Ezekiel says that God gave bad commands to Israel back when they were in the wilderness. No amount of posturing or creative renarration is going to change that fact.

Those who have a problem with Calvinism will have a problem with this interpretation, but as Stark admits, the Bible teaches Calvinism.

Ha! I do no such thing as admit that “the Bible teaches Calvinism.” Mr. Warren is being deceptive again. Here is what I say about the Bible and Calvinism in my book: “Obviously one is going to find love in the text when one approaches the text with that expectation. In the same way, one would find violence in the text when one approached it expecting to find violence; one would find Arminianism when one sought Arminianism, and Calvinism when one sought Calvinism” (p. 37). I think we’re beginning to see a pattern in terms of the lengths Mr. Warren is willing to go to in order to refute my book (and the Bible itself).

Like other skeptics of the Bible, Stark is scandalized by Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22).

Mr. Warren uses the word “scandalized” to make it seem as if I am unfamiliar with the long history of interpretation of Gen 22 and to make it seem as if my reading of the text is basically emotional. He is wrong on both counts. His subsequent interpretation of Gen 22 completely evades the points I make about the text in my book. He does not address my argument.

Another major claim that Stark makes is that Jesus was wrong about his coming in judgment within a generation. He says that N.T. Wright’s argument in Jesus and the Victory of God equating that coming with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is “novel,” but apparently Stark is uninformed about the long history of this interpretation and the many recent defenses of this preterist view of the Olivet Discourse (See J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory; David Chilton, Paradise Restored, and Days of Vengeance; Kenneth Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell, and He Shall Have Dominion; Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness. There is a curious lack of citations by Wright, as if he was the first to think of this view).

Mr. Warren is again doing his best to try to discredit me, but he’s only discrediting himself. I am very familiar with the long history of the preterist interpretations of the Olivet Discourse. I was a preterist for years and have read thousands of pages of literature written by leading preterists. When I said that Wright’s reading of the text was “novel” I did not mean that Wright invented preterism; I just meant that he used some novel arguments to argue for preterism.

Jesus predicted that the temple would be destroyed within a generation of his sermon (Matt. 24:34), so that not one stone would be left upon another (Matt. 24:1). He told his disciples to flee to the mountains when the saw the abomination of desolation (Matt. 24:15), when Jerusalem would be surrounded by armies (Luke 21:20-21). A generation in the Bible is about 40 years (the Israelites were condemned to wander in the wilderness for a generation, and it lasted 40 years), and in A.D. 70, almost 40 years after Jesus’ sermon, the temple was destroyed down to the last stone. As Eusebius reports, Christians in Jerusalem were able to escape the slaughter because they heeded Jesus’ warning to flee to the mountains when they saw the city surrounded: “But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella.” (History of the Church 3:5:3). The Arch of Titus in Rome depicts the articles of the temple being carried off and the Jews being led away in chains. It stands to this day as a testimony that Jesus’ detailed prophecy was fulfilled. (The details of Jesus’ prophecy hardly compare to the statements of Jesus bar Hananiah, who went around simply yelling “A voice against Jerusalem and the temple” over and over a few years before the Roman invasion.)

There are two things humorous here about Mr. Warren’s claims. First, Eusebius does not say, as Mr. Warren claims, that the Christians fled to the mountains. Second, when Jesus told his disciples to flee to the mountains, he was giving them some very poor advice. As N. T. Wright notes, “This is scarcely to be taken as a reference, after the event, to the actual happenings of AD 66-70. For a start, Titus and his legions were occupying the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus, the two highest hills overlooking Jerusalem; fleeing to the hills would mean surrender and/or death.”2 Just one more thing Jesus was wrong about in the Olivet Discourse. Jesus ben Hananiah was certainly on safer ground, as he kept his prediction of the temple’s destruction rather vague.

Stark says that Jesus was wrong because Jesus says that his coming is after the temple is destroyed, so his coming cannot be equated with the temple’s destruction, but must refer to a bodily appearance, which never happened. Stark assumes that the “abomination that causes desolation” is the desolation itself. It’s not. Jesus says that there is still time to escape at that point. The armies have surrounded Jerusalem and the destruction is “near” (Luke 21:20). The armies of the Roman General Vespasian surrounded Jerusalem in A.D. 68; the temple was not destroyed until August-September of A.D. 70.

First of all, it’s not clear what Mr. Warren is suggesting the “abomination that causes desolation” is. He says it is not the desolation itself. OK. The only hint he gives as to what it is is in his reference to Luke 21:20: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” Is Mr. Warren suggesting that the abomination is the surrounding of Jerusalem by the Roman armies? It seems that’s what he is saying, but again he’s unclear so I could be wrong. What I think he’s suggesting is this: The abomination that causes desolation is the surrounding of Jerusalem by Roman armies in 68 CE, and the desolation itself is the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. If this is what he intends to say, this is frankly a rather silly interpretation. Note here also that Luke does not even use the term “abomination that causes desolation.” Only Matthew and Mark use the term. But Jesus’ use of the term was a reference back to its use in Daniel as a code for the desecration of the temple when Antiochus IV sacrificed a pig to Zeus on the temple altar. That was the “abomination that causes desolation” in Daniel. So when Jesus picks up that term and applies it to the Roman invasion, he means that Rome will desecrate the temple. I would not say that the “abomination that causes desolation” and the “desolation itself” are the same thing, even though Mr. Warren claims my whole case somehow rests on that alleged assumption. Obviously the desolation is subsequent to the abomination, but it is clear that the abomination refers to the desecration of the temple.

At any rate, all of this is moot, and completely irrelevant to my argument, as well as to the text itself. Jesus clearly says that the temple will be destroyed and that the Son of Man will return to gather elect, all within one generation of Jesus’ lifetime. There’s no getting around that, as I’ve argued extensively in my eighth chapter, and Mr. Warren’s protestations certainly haven’t managed to get around it. Yet they continue:

Also, Stark claims that the tribulation must be global based on “all the tribes of the earth” (Matt. 24:30), but it makes more sense to understand this as “all the tribes of the Land,” as in the land of Israel, especially since the tribes are “those who pierced him” (Rev. 1:7).

No, “land” does not make more sense of the text, since in the very next verse it is clear again that the scope is worldwide, since the angels of the Son of Man are sent out to the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other, in order to gather the elect and (by implication) return them to Jerusalem. That makes it clear that the word in v. 30 should be read as “the whole earth” rather than just “the local land.” Moreover, why would all of the tribes of the land of Israel mourn at the sight of their liberator, at the very time of the restoration of Israel, when the tribes are being brought out of diaspora? It is not the tribes of Israel that are mourning, but the tribes of the earth, and this is quite clear in the text.

Stark devotes a chapter to the claim that remnants of an early Israelite polytheism are found in a few texts. Psalm 82 depicts God holding council among the “gods,” and then denouncing them for judging unjustly by being partial to the wicked rather than upholding the rights of the poor and weak. Who would have a job like that? Heavenly beings or human rulers? The latter makes more sense. It’s a common complaint that God makes against human rulers (Exo. 23:6-8, Isaiah 1:23, Jer. 22:1-4, Prov. 18:5, Amos 5). God says that these “gods” will die like any other human ruler (Ps. 82:7) – because that is what they are.

No, again Mr. Warren resorts to adding words to the text in order to achieve his desired interpretation. The text does not say that the gods will die “like any other human ruler” as Mr. Warren claims. The text says, “I say you are Gods, sons of Elyon, but you will die like mortals.” The text does not say “like any other mortal.” It says that the gods will be killed by the up-and-coming king deity, as in numerous ancient near eastern myths.

The fact that some of the terms used are similar to terms found in the Ugarit myths of a father god that ruled over his family of lesser gods is not enough to equate the two, given the context.

In fact the divine council motif is not found only at Ugarit (which is in Canaan and thus Israel) but ubiquitously throughout the ANE. If Israel had no concept of the divine council with a father deity and children deities, they would be the only one in all of the ANE, but in fact, we see scores of evidence that they shared this conception throughout the Hebrew Bible, Psalm 82 being only one of many such texts. And I’m not sure what “context” Mr. Warren is referring to that assures him the divine council is not in view in Psalm 82. The context of the Psalm is established in the first verse: “El has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” This is the standard picture in the ANE. Mr. Warren’s claim that Israel uses the same mythological language as all the other ANE cultures but that Israel means something entirely different by it has no support in the text and is nothing more than apologetic special pleading—the very definition of special pleading.

And even if these gods are heavenly beings of some sort, they are not ontologically on par with the God who is judge over all the nations on earth (v. 8). On this view, Psalm 82 could be seen as mocking the Ugarit view and eradicating its lesser gods.

It seems that Mr. Warren is wholly unfamiliar with the Ugaritic material. If he were familiar with it, he couldn’t make this argument, because the Ugaritic material also has a God who ascends to be judge over the other deities. There is no “ontological” difference between this god and the others. It’s that this particular god has bested the others, defeated all challengers. This is the same thing we see in the Greek pantheon, with Zeus as the king of the other gods. It’s the same in Ugarit, Babylon, and pretty much everywhere—obviously Israel included.

Many Ugarit gods (Baal, Asherah) and Ugarit practices (worship of dead ancestors, worship through drunken orgies, making images of the gods, worshipping multiple gods) are repeatedly condemned by the Hebrew prophets.

This is quite obvious. Israel was monolatrous. They believed in other deities but condemned the worship of any but Yahweh. It is no argument against the established academic position that Israelite prophets condemned the worship of foreign deities. In fact, most of those condemnations assume the existence of those deities. It is not until Jeremiah and Second Isaiah that the existence of other national deities is denied outright, as I argue (following the consensus) in my book.

On the other hand, some of the names and descriptions of various Ugarit gods are used for the Hebrew God (Yahweh, El Shaddai, El Elyon). Similarity of language does not prove that the same exact beliefs are being adopted, no more than the use of Greek by New Testament writers proves that Greek philosophy was being adopted them. They worked with the language that was available and adapted it for their own uses.

This is actually what I argue, it’s just that the evidence shows that Israelites adapted the language in different ways, and that the adaptive process was relatively late. In my fifth chapter I show how over time Yahweh and El Elyon were conflated into the same deity, but it didn’t happen immediately. It took centuries. As for his analogy with Greek, it is a faulty analogy. Nobody claims that the NT adopted Greek philosophy because it was written in the Greek language. That’s absurd. Scholars identify where the NT writers borrowed from Greek philosophy when it is clear that certain ideas are derived from Greek philosophy. And it’s the ideas in the Hebrew Bible, not the mere fact that it is written in a cognate Semitic language, that leads scholars to identify points of contact between Israel and its ANE predecessors and contemporaries. Obviously there are differences between Israelite mythology and Ugaritic mythology. Of course, there are differences between Ugaritic mythology and Babylonian mythology. The mere fact that there are differences doesn’t mean one is special or correct. This is special pleading. But the reality is, we can’t make broad-brush appeal to unspecified differences and hope the clear points of contact and similarity become blurred. This is more apologetic sleight of hand.

The Higher Critics simply beg the question of naturalism – they assume that all knowledge must come from earthly sources and not from an absolute God that speaks in the midst of history in propositional language to humans.

This is called the historical-grammatical interpretation. And no, higher criticism does not assume that all knowledge must come from earthly sources. But it does assume that where ideas are the same throughout cultures, there is probably contact and borrowing between them, or at least general conceptions they all share even if direct exposure to specific texts or oral traditions isn’t feasible.

Assuming the truth of the Bible, polytheism is a degeneration from an original monotheism; and it might be that the various names used to describe the true God eventually became names for different gods in Ugarit.

Assuming the truth of the Bible, the opposite is clearly the case.

Stark also appeals to Deuteronomy 32, arguing that a god named Elyon (“Most High”) (v.8) is depicted as ruling over the god Yahweh (“the Lord”) (v.9). But Elyon is not a name, it’s an epithet, a description. Deuteronomy 4:19-20 has Yahweh doing the job of Elyon in Deuteronomy 32: Apportioning the possessions of all the nations and actively taking Israel as His unique possession – not passively receiving it. There certainly is no necessity to Stark’s interpretation (following Mark Smith). You only find two gods there if you want to.

First, I’m well aware that Elyon is an epithet. But what is an epithet? A term used as a descriptive substitute for the name or title of a person, such as The Great Emancipator for Abraham Lincoln. So El is referred to as Elyon; the epithet functions as a name. Second, he claims that in Deuteronomy 4, Yahweh is doing what Elyon is doing in Deuteronomy 32. By this he must intend to imply that Yahweh and Elyon are considered to be the same deity. There are two problems with this argument. First, Yahweh is not doing in Deuteronomy 4 what Elyon is doing in Deuteronomy 32. In Deut 4, Yahweh is giving the land of Canaan to Israel, not apportioning the possessions of all the nations, as Mr. Warren claims. In Deut 32, when Elyon apportions to the deities the various nations, he gives the people of Israel to Yahweh. There is no contradiction here. But there are other texts where Yahweh and Elyon are conflated into the same deity that Mr. Warren could and should have used to make this point. But let’s assume for a second that Deuteronomy 4 did conflate Yahweh with Elyon (it does not). Mr. Warren’s argument would still fail because, as I pointed out in my book, and as numerous scholars such as Frank Moore Cross and David Noel Freedman have shown, the poem in Deuteronomy 32 was written very early, ca. the eleventh century BCE (I dated it even more conservatively, earlier, in my book so as not to cause a stumbling block to conservatives). But Deuteronomy 4 was written much later, centuries later. The poetry in the Pentateuch (Song of the Sea, Miriam, Song of Moses, Song of Deborah) is much earlier than the prose narratives. Thus, that is why when we look at Deuteronomy 32, we see an earlier view wherein Yahweh is the son of Elyon. It is not until later, after the rise of the monarchy, that the two are conflated and Yahweh assumes Elyon’s place as high god over the pantheon. Mr. Warren claims that “you only find two gods there if you want to.” Well, no. I didn’t want to, but there are in fact two gods there. A father doesn’t give an inheritance to himself, yet the text says that Elyon gave an inheritance to Yahweh. The text says that Elyon divided up humankind according to the number of his sons (the deities in the pantheon). It doesn’t say he divided up humankind according to the number of his children, plus himself. All of this is clear in my book, but apparently Mr. Warren missed it.

Which brings me to another issue. Stark claims that proponents of higher criticism aren’t biased. They just follow the facts. Well, gee, if Stark says it, it must be so!

Well, in fact, I don’t say it. I make no such claim. I do not say proponents of higher criticism aren’t biased. I say (rightly) that they do not come to their conclusions because of the bias attributed to them by fundamentalist Christians—namely, the anti-supernaturalist bias. Many proponents of higher criticism believe in the supernatural, and believe that God intervenes. The claim I made is that so-called “higher” critics follow a consistent set of interpretive principles, whereas inerrantists change their principles frequently in order to suit their controlling bias—the bias that says the Bible must be without error. I argue all of this quite extensively and it is very clear what I say and what I do not say. It appears that Mr. Warren has as much trouble interpreting me as he does the Bible. Nevertheless, Mr. Warren continues:

His statement ignores the demise of the falsification criterion of logical positivism. All facts are interpreted facts. It ignores how secularists define “science” to mean naturalism, making it a foregone conclusion that their “scientific facts” will exclude evidence of the supernatural.

I ignore none of these things. These realities I (and most biblical critics) happily accept. (Try reading John J. Collins or Dale Allison and see if they’re not fully aware of the demise of logical positivism!) Mr. Warren himself ignores that the majority of biblical critics are believers, whether Jewish or Christian, who do not have a closed, naturalistic worldview.

More specifically, it ignores interpretive issues that directly relate to biblical archeology. Stark pretends that debates in archeology over theoretical methods don’t exist, like the debate over processual archeology versus postprocessual archeology. He pretends that there cannot be secular biases in research.

No, I do not pretend this at all. My point is that there are Christian biases which undermine the historical-grammatical interpretation of the Bible. But the anti-supernaturalist bias is a red herring—fundamentalists always resort to this claim but the reality is that biblical critics don’t come to the Bible and say, well, this can’t be true because it’s supernatural, therefore I must find a naturalistic explanation. They have a consistent set of hermeneutical principles that are applied across the board, whether the subject of investigation is the Bible, the Homeric Epics, or what have you. Of course, there are ongoing debates about methodology, and those are important, and sometimes they lead to revision of previous conclusions. But it’s not enough just to sloppily appeal to the tentative nature of scholarship that all good scholars embrace and love and claim that that fact undermines any conclusion scholars come to that happens to reflect negatively on the historicity or veracity of the Bible.

Modern secularism is anti-authoritarian and morally pluralistic, so interpretations of evidence that undermine monotheism and promote polytheism will tend to be very attractive.


Secularists often take pride in their “humble” attitude that the “scientific” approach to truth is that truth is never achieved because new evidence can always overturn previous views, in contrast to “close-minded” absolutism. But when they find evidence that they think undermines the Bible, it becomes the indisputable. Final Answer.

No, not in the slightest. Again, biblical critics generally aren’t motivated to undermine the Bible. I know because I know many of them, and many of them want to try to salvage the Bible as best they can because they don’t like it when the evidence undermines it. Sure, there are some scholars out there who are hostile to Christianity or Judaism but that fact alone isn’t sufficient to prove that they’re not using valid methodology to come to their conclusions. This is sloppy argumentation and empty rhetoric.

Stark presents his claims as if he has found the Final Answer on the Bible.

Nonsense. Here is how I present myself:

This book developed out of my personal and honest struggle to come to terms with my own very sincere and active faith. It is the product, so far, of my quest for truth, and as threatening as the truth can often be, those who believe that all truth is God’s truth should not feel threatened by the contents of this book. I do not claim to have a secure grip on truth, but the pages that follow reflect the truth as I understand it, and it is a truth that—while initially threatening to my identity—has now set me free. My intention, therefore, is not to undermine the faith, but to pursue a mature faith, to faithfully integrate my religious convictions with my commitment to honesty, and thus to offer a holistically faithful account of scripture and its role within the church. (p. xviii)

If I speak elsewhere as if my position is correct, Mr. Warren will have to forgive me, but I am persuaded it is, until persuaded otherwise (which happens a lot, actually!). Nevertheless…

You would never know from Stark’s book, for example, that any scholars have challenged Smith’s view of polytheism in the Bible (see, e.g., Richard Hess, Israelite Religions: An Archeological and Biblical Survey).

Richard Hess’s book has some valuable information in it but it is a travesty of biblical criticism. Hess is an apologist first and a scholar second. For instance, in his treatment of Deuteronomy 32 (which we discussed above), Richard Hess just flatly ignores any evidence damning to his thesis. Hess says:

Now as to the matter of Deuteronomy 32:8-9, I translate the Hebrew as we have it: “When the Most High (Elyon) gave nations their inheritance among humanity, he established boundaries for the people according to the number of the sons of Israel. (He did this) because Yahweh’s allotment is his people. Jacob is the portion of his inheritance.” To find “sons of God” in place of “sons of Israel,” you need to rely on the Greek Septuagint translation, which actually has “angels of God.” It is not in the Hebrew.

Seeing this come from Hess surprised me, but I suppose it really shouldn’t. He translates this according to the Masoretic Text (“according to the number of the sons of Israel”). When he says that to find “sons of God” instead of “sons of Israel,” one needs “to rely on the Greek Septuagint translation [LXX]” and that “sons of God” is “not in the Hebrew,” he exposes his ignorance here. It’s almost as if he wrote this in 1946, before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. He says “it’s not in the Hebrew,” and by “the Hebrew” he is referring to the Masoretic Text. The Masoretic Text says, “sons of Israel.” But the Dead Sea Scrolls (Hebrew texts which are about a thousand years older than the Masoretic Text Hess relies on) say, “according to the number of the sons of the gods.” Those who are trained in textual criticism know how to tell which reading (“sons of the gods,” “sons of Israel”) is most probably the original reading. Precisely because the Greek Septuagint says, “according to the number of the angels of God.” I talk about this at length in my book (chapter 4). But Scholars know that the reading in the Dead Sea Scrolls is what the scribes were translating into Greek when they produced the Septuagint in the third century BCE (also about a thousand years older than the Masoretic Text). “Angels of God” doesn’t derive from “sons of Israel”; it is a translation of “sons of the gods.” At the time the Septuagint was translated, Jews were monotheists and so they interpreted references to the “sons of God/gods” as “angels.” (I show why this couldn’t have been the original meaning in my book.)

So, when Hess writes that “It is not in the Hebrew,” what he really should say is that, “it is not in the MT.” The change of “sons of the gods” to “sons of Israel” is what textual critics call a tiqqune sopherim (a pious alteration of the problematic text).

So, the picture here is clear: El Elyon (God Most High) divided up humankind according to the number of the sons of the gods/God (read: his and his consort’s children), and Yahweh’s portion was his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance. Yahweh is clearly depicted as El Elyon’s son in this very early Hebrew text. The land and people of Israel are given to Yahweh as Yahweh’s inheritance.

I go over all of this much more fully in chapter 4 of my book, and detail other evidence pertaining to polytheism in the Hebrew Bible. That Hess doesn’t even mention the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls (indeed, he seems to be completely oblivious to it) I think is quite telling.

Moreover, Mr. Warren keeps referring to the polytheism in the Bible as “Smith’s view” as if Smith is the only or principal proponent of the view. In fact, the vast, vast majority of biblical scholars are aware of this reality in the text. Mark Smith is just a more recent and accessible proponent of the longstanding consensus. See the numerous works by Frank Moore Cross. It’s really the established consensus of scholarship, and Hess and a few other Evangelical scholars (Evangelical first, scholar second) are in the small minority. That’s not to say that majority is right just because it’s the majority (I’m not making that argument). I’m just clarifying the reality of the situation because Mr. Warren makes it sound as if the polytheistic view is obscure or heavily contested. It isn’t, at all. Many devout believers who are also biblical scholars concede this reality with no problems.

Stark’s treatment of the arguments for inerrancy are shallow. He makes the common but false claim that inerrantists think that the Bible’s own claims of inerrancy are sufficient to make it so.

Again, Mr. Warren is being deceptive. I make no such claim. I am responding directly to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy when it lists as one of the reasons they confess the Bible’s inerrancy that the Bible claims inerrancy for itself. I take down that argument, but that’s not my only argument against inerrancy. It is one argument amid a whole armada of arguments, which are directed at the positive arguments for inerrancy found in the Chicago Statement. If my arguments against inerrancy are shallow, it is because the Chicago Statement’s arguments in favor of inerrancy are shallow.

Rather, the reason that the Bible’s own claims of inerrancy are important is because it gives us a reason to consider the claim.

Much like the Quran and the Book of Mormon and other religious texts which claim inerrancy for themselves. The same sorts of arguments that disprove the inerrancy of these texts also disprove the inerrancy of the Bible, but fundamentalist Christians are only willing to employ those arguments against other texts. They have a great deal of common sense when reading the Book of Mormon. But when it comes to the Bible, the common sense goes away and the reading strategy switches from critical to apologetic.

But after denouncing appeals to the Bible’s teaching on its own inerrancy, Stark tries to prove that the Bible is not inerrant because the claim of inerrancy is not explicitly made for some of the books. He completely fails to address the arguments by implication that inerrantists have given for the inerrancy of many books in the Bible.

I don’t fail to address them. I show that’s precisely how the idea of the inerrancy of the whole Bible developed in the first place!

Stark’s treatment of inerrancy also completely fails to consider the basis for inerrancy. He says that the all or nothing view of inerrancy begs for a psychological explanation. No, it begs for a philosophical explanation, which Stark never addresses. He calls the philosophical argument “the core” of the inerrantist argument, but then simply dismisses it as unbiblical. The inerrancy of the Bible is based on the nature of the absolutely sovereign Creator as the source of all facts and knowledge. By His nature, God cannot err regarding any fact, whether spiritual or material. He is the one that assigns the meanings to all facts. As argued in such books as The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture by Cornelius Van Til and Inerrancy: An Inescapable Concept by R.J. Rushdoony, such a God necessarily exists in order for intelligible experience to be possible, and this entails a uniquely Christian theistic epistemology involving Biblical apriorism.

I directly deal with these fallacious claims in my third chapter. It’s one thing for Mr. Warren to conveniently ignore arguments I make that undermine his position; it’s another thing altogether for him to claim that I never made them, when they feature prominently in my book.

Stark claims to find several contradictions in the Bible, but they are all refutable, most of them easily, although a few require a skilled knowledge of ancient Hebrew.

So refute them.

Stark discusses various problems with connecting the chronology of the Old Testament with archeological research into what was happening in various cities at particular points in history. It’s true that there are some disconnects between the two in a number of cases at this time, but as the secularists say, science is always provisional. Empirical evidence can’t even settle who shot JFK just a few decades ago.

Right. In other words, right now it seems that the archaeological evidence is damning to the biblical conquest accounts, but who knows? Maybe one day evidence for the existence of whole cities the Bible claims existed will magically appear! Until then, we’ll just reserve judgment.

Look, there are some cases where the evidence is very tentative and we can’t do much with it. Good archaeologists are very careful here not to say more than can be said. But in other cases, the evidence is clear as day, and archaeologists who were hoping for one thing are forced to concede another. Several devout Christians went to dig sites hoping to corroborate the conquest narratives and after painstaking searches were forced to concede the Bible got it wrong. I detail these accounts in my sixth chapter.

Stark mentions that according to the standard view of the archeological evidence at Jericho, Israel entered Canaan about 200 years after Jericho had been occupied. Stark fails to mention that every other detail of the conquest of Jericho has been confirmed: The walls fell down so that the debris fell outward, forming a ramp for the Israelites to attack the city that sat on higher ground; the city was completely burned; the city was destroyed at the time of the year that the Bible says – after spring harvest; the city fell quickly as evidenced by the abundant grain that remained; the outer wall had houses built into it like the one Rahab is described to live in, and a section was found still standing, which would have spared Rahab and her family. An Egyptian siege would have been by starving the city before the harvest, and then ramming the walls in. Although C14 provides the older date, the era of the pottery supports the Biblical chronology. Recent C14 dating of the Egyptian New Kingdom dynasty also gives an age that is systematically up to 200 years older than archeological dates (see Hendrik J. Bruins, “Dating Pharaonic Egypt,” Science, Vol. 328, 18 June 2010).

See the literature referenced in my sixth chapter on Jericho. Mr. Warren is obfuscating the facts. But he also fails to note that about Jericho I am more tentative in my conclusion. I say it is “possible but highly unlikely,” based on the archaeological evidence, that an occupation could be dated to the period of the conquest. But Mr. Warren fails to note that there is zero archaeological evidence whatsoever for a mass exodus of Israelites from Egypt. He further fails to mention the six other major sites I detail in this section, sites where the archaeological evidence clearly contradicts the biblical accounts.

Stark criticizes the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy because the authors say that the doctrine of inerrancy is upheld despite the fact that not all difficulties in Biblical revelation have been resolved. Stark makes the false assumption that Christians arrived at the doctrine of inerrancy by a purely a posteriori method of examining all the statements in the Bible and not finding any that that they didn’t fully understand in relation to all other facts.

No I don’t.

Because the human mind is finite, no worldview is without unresolved problems. When comparing rival systems of beliefs, the issue will be which presuppositions of each worldview, despite the lower-order problems, make most sense out the world. We all treat contradictions as merely apparent when treating them as real would undermine the intelligibility of our world.

I think I showed adequately why belief in the inerrancy of the Bible is not one that is conducive to making “most sense out of the world.” But the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is not a “worldview.” It is one feature supporting a worldview, and it does a poor job of it, as I showed. It’s true that when our worldview is challenged we look for ways to reconcile our worldview with the new, challenging data, or to find ways to dismiss the data, or reinterpret it. But when we use inconsistent and contradictory principles to maintain our worldview, our belief has become pathological, not rational, and that is what I show is necessary in order to maintain belief in the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Moreover, I point out that since the Quran claims inerrancy for itself, if the claim is enough to get a rational human to “consider” the claim, then Christians should all be Muslims too, if they afforded the Quran the same apologetic privileges they afforded the Bible. But the reality is that not every claim merits our investigation. Some claims immediately bear the burden of proof, and the claim that a book written over thousands of years by hundreds of individuals is without error in everything that it affirms is a claim requiring special proof. The burden of proof is on the inerrantist, and no one should accept the doctrine of inerrancy unless the burden of proof has been satisfied. Would a Reformed Christian accept the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Book of Mormon without having the burden of proof satisfied? Not typically.

There are some claims that don’t require special proof or that don’t bear the burden of it. Inerrancy is not one of them. It is a special claim that applies only in one instance in all of human history. By definition, that is a special claim bearing the burden of proof. Therefore, any contradiction to such a special belief is going to require strong evidence explaining the contradiction in terms palatable to the challenged worldview.

The Biblical worldview, with its insistence on the absolute rationality of the Creator, is actually the historical and philosophical basis for science (see How Should We Then Live? by Franky Shaeffer’s dad). The Enlightenment philosophes claimed science as their own after the foundations had already been laid in medieval Christendom.

Actually, this is a fallacious claim that has been refuted over and over again, yet that hasn’t stopped Christian apologists from continuing to make it.

A major theme in Stark’s book is that the Bible is immoral, particularly when the Israelites were commanded to completely destroy the seven nations that occupied Canaan, including the women and children. His argument is mainly a repeated use the fallacy of appeal to pity, with an ad Hitlerum fallacy thrown in for good measure.

Here is another confused criticism and false accusation by Mr. Warren. He claims I employ two fallacies in my chapter on biblical genocide. First, the fallacy of appeal to pity. What is this? It is a fallacy in which someone tries to win support for an argument or idea by exploiting his or her opponent’s feelings of pity or guilt. Here are some examples of an appeal to pity: “You must have graded my exam incorrectly. I studied very hard for weeks specifically because I knew my career depended on getting a good grade. If you give me a failing grade I’m ruined!” “What do you mean I can’t get a job here? All my friends work here! This is unfair! You’re going to make me cry. How could you do this to me?” “Would you buy your luxurious meals and fancy clothes if you knew that there were children in India who spend their days naked and unfed?” “I’m positive that my work will meet your requirements. I really need the job since my grandmother is sick.”

Is this really what I do in my chapter on genocide? Not in the slightest. Granted, I open with a vivid portrait of genocide, asking the reader to imagine what it would be like to witness the sudden massacre of one’s family and friends. But I do not use this to prove that the biblical texts are immoral; I expressly use the anecdote to remind the reader that we are not discussing abstract philosophical ideas, but genocide, which is a real world atrocity with horrendous real world effects on real people. I then proceed to evaluate the biblical and apologists’ justifications for biblical genocide and show how these justifications are contradicted in numerous places in the Bible itself. To argue that there is no legitimate reason to slaughter a group of children is not an appeal to pity; it is an appeal to morality and basic decency. In fact, I show that various voices in the Bible itself condemn the killing of children for the sins of their parents. I am not making an argument from pity; I am not asking the reader to pity slaughtered children and therefore to conclude that the Bible is wrong. I am asking the reader to recognize that there is no moral justification for the killing of children. I deal with numerous attempts to justify the killing of children, and show how they are inconsistent, problematic, and how they all ultimately fail. These are logical arguments. I am not saying that it is reasonable to kill children but we shouldn’t out of pity for them. That would be an argument from pity. (I know my homework is late but you should give me an A because my daughter is sick.) I am arguing that it is never reasonable to kill children for the sins of their parents, which is what takes places in the biblical conquest narratives. The genocides were therefore immoral.

Second, Mr. Warren claims I throw in an argumentum ad Hitlerum fallacy “for good measure.” What is this? The reductio ad Hitlerum is an argument that says a policy is unsound because Hitler adopted it. So, for example, someone employs the reduction ad Hitlerum when s/he says, “We should not have censorship because Hitler had censorship,” implying that censorship is wrong because Hitler used it. It is a guilt by association argument, or a slippery slope argument. “We start censoring our media now, the next thing you know we’ll be rounding up Jews.” This is the reduction at Hitlerum. Is this what I do in my chapter? No, it is not. There is no disputing that the conquest narratives depict genocide. I have no need to argue, genocide is wrong because Hitler did it. That would be backwards. Hitler was wrong because he committed genocide. When I reference Mein Kampf in my chapter, I do so to compare the way that perpetrators of genocide use propaganda to justify their acts. I compared certain biblical apologists who argued that the Canaanites were a cancer on the society with statements in Mein Kampf to that same effect. Do I argue that genocide propaganda is wrong because Hitler used it? No, of course not. I simply use Hitler to help identify genocide propaganda. I could have used any number of genocidal regimes who made similar statements about the objects of their indiscriminate slaughter. The point is to do comparative genocide, not to establish that genocide is wrong by reference to Hitler. If we do not accept Hitler’s propaganda for genocide, why do we uncritically accept the same propaganda themes when employed by Christian apologists or biblical writers?

Even still, my argument does not rest in the slightest on the association I make between certain Christian apologists and other genocide propagandists. Among other arguments, I make an extensive argument that even the biblical propaganda itself is inconsistent with the Bible. For instance, it is said that the Canaanites are to be wiped out because of their abominable worship of others gods, and Israel is forbidden from intermarrying with the Canaanites. Yet Israel is expressly permitted to intermarry with other tribes, non-Yahweh worshiping tribes, just so long as they don’t live within the borders Israel is annexing from the Canaanites et al. Thus, it is clear that the “eradication of the cancer” justification is just employed to justify a narrative in which Israel commits a series of morally atrocious acts. But when it comes to tribes outside of Israel’s allotted land, apparently their idolatrous practices aren’t cancerous at all. Israel is allowed to intermarry with them! The same is true in Numbers 31. Israel destroys the five major cities of the Midianites and takes all of the women and children captive. This incenses Moses because the Midianite women are going to lead Israel astray, as they had before. So Moses orders the soldiers to execute every non-virgin female, and every male child. But he orders that the virgin maidens be spared and integrated into Israel. What? Virgin Midianite girls didn’t worship their parents’ foreign deities also? Of course they did. The virgin girls would have been just as much of a threat to pure Yahwism in Israel as their mothers would have been. We’re dealing with propaganda literature here, not clearly-defined moral principles.

He makes an attempt to find a logical contradiction in saying that God’s commands for humans are derived from God’s character, and yet saying that it is permissible for God to do things that humans are forbidden from doing. But just as a judge in a human court can do things that a private citizen is prohibited from doing, like putting people in jail, God’s position as Judge of the cosmos puts him in a position to ethically act in ways that are forbidden to humans. God’s commands to humans are derived from God’s character, but fitted for the limitations of the human condition.

So in what way is it ethical for God to kill a child for the sins of the child’s parents? I do not dispute that there are cases where God can act in ways that humans cannot. But to kill an unborn child in its mother’s womb, or to kill an infant, for the sins of her parents, is not something that falls within the purview of one with authority to execute the law. This is lawlessness. I deal with this at some length in chapter six. I would encourage those interested to consult my argument there.

Stark condemns God’s commands, or rather, claims to prove that God did not command those things but they must be a human invention, because “we all know” that killing children is always immoral.

I do not claim to prove that God did not command genocide. Again, Mr. Warren misrepresents me. (Not a very careful reader.) I stated that I do not believe that God commanded genocide. I stated it as my position. But I never made the claim that my arguments had “proven” that God did or did not command genocide. How anybody could “prove” that God did or did not do anything is beyond me. Nevertheless, because I have found no good explanation for how God can be good while ordering the execution of infants, I conclude that if God is good, then God did not order the execution of infants. I am supported in my logic here by William Lane Craig, one of the foremost Evangelical Christian apologists, as I detail in chapter six.

. . .“we all know” that killing children is always immoral. (Abortion is immoral then, and we all know it?)

This is a silly sleight of hand. No, we do not all know that abortion is always immoral because we do not all agree on the question of when a fetus becomes a child. Obviously I know where Mr. Warren stands on the question, and I am closer to Mr. Warren than to the ardent pro-choicers, but we all know that it is immoral to kill a child once it is viable, and even pro-choicers agree that it is immoral to kill a fetus against the mother’s will!

Mr. Warren subsequently embarks upon a rant claiming that I made the voice of the people the voice of God, and that I am the prophet of this God (read: humanity), and that my God is fickle and while we condemn Hitler and Stalin today, we didn’t in the past and we may not in the future. He says:

Stark claims that the genocide commands in the Bible are purely human commands, but then proposes that humans would be better gods than the God of the Bible.

This is absolute malarkey. I do claim that the God of the Bible is largely a human construction, but I never claim that humans are gods and that humans would do a better job than the humanly-constructed God of the Bible. This is nothing more than an intentional mischaracterization of my position to score brownie points with a sympathetic readership who haven’t actually read my book. Mr. Warren is lying to discredit me. What does that say about his own position, that he has to lie to defend it?

In reality, what I claim in the book is that we humans today are no better than the humans who constructed the God of the Bible. I claim that we need to study and be intimately familiar with our scriptures for precisely that reason, because in the text of scripture, when we look at the human faces of God, we see ourselves. So when we see a God of genocide, we see those selfsame tendencies in ourselves. I never claim that humanity is its own god, nor does my position imply or necessitate such a view. What I claim in the book is that I believe the true God will guide us into all truth if we are willing to listen to the Other, and if we are willing to look at ourselves, our texts, and our traditions critically. Without such a self-critical posture, I argue, it is impossible for God to speak to us, and that is why humans have a fickle grasp on morality, because we are not naturally self-critical beings. It is when we are more interested in blindly justifying ourselves and our texts and traditions that we lose sight of God, the God who is often seen most clearly in the Other—the Samaritan, the Philistine, the Gentile, the poor, the imprisoned. I believe God will lead and guide us into truth and justice, but only if we are willing to listen, together, to others, and to be self-critical of ourselves and our own most sacred artifacts. I have no problem understanding that Mr. Warren despises my position and my brand of faith, but there is no reason for him to put words in my mouth and essentially lie about what it is I believe.

He further obfuscates my position, but this time I attribute it to an inability on his part to understand how a world without foundations can function, and not to an intentional attempt to misrepresent me:

not only can he not condemn genocide in the conquest of Canaan, he can’t condemn anything. He admits that his view provides no foundation for morality, yet claims that he is not advocating relativism. But with no rules to restrain the will of the majority, anything could be deemed ethical.

This is nonsense. I do condemn a lot of things; just because I don’t have a foundation doesn’t mean I can’t know right from wrong. Mr. Warren goes onto claim that I believe that there is no ultimate right or wrong. This is absolutely false. Just because I don’t believe we have access to an infallible guide to morality doesn’t mean I don’t believe morality exists, nor does it mean I don’t think we have any access to it at all. My position is that our moral claims must be made with humility, especially when they are claims that would impinge upon the rights of others. I believe that an integral, indispensable part of the process for discovering what is moral and immoral from situation to situation involves listening to those with whom we do not agree, and listening for the voice of God. This is something that Mr. Warren needs practice doing, because he continues to misrepresent me:

Stark repeats the common liberal charge that the composition of the Bible is a product of schemes to secure political power. Yet in the last chapter of Stark’s book, he reveals that the purpose of his book is to make the world safe for liberal political causes. (He mentions opposing the capitalists and granting political power to the homeless and illegal aliens.)

Really? I reveal that, do I? I reveal that the “the purpose of my book” is to advocate for “liberal political causes”? Give me a break. Where do I mention “opposing the capitalists”? I make a reference to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “growing opposition to free market capitalism” later in his career, but give no indication either way as to whether his opposition was good or bad, right or wrong, or something in between. I simply mention it. Later, I reference the sacral character of modern political discourse, how we make “sacrifices” in sending our children to war in order to defend our economic orders, and I referenced the way we make sacrifices “to ensure the victory of capitalism over socialism.” But I do not indicate that I think socialism should win and that capitalism should lose. I don’t make the opposite claim either. I merely am pointing out the way that we use sacral language to narrate our so-called “secular” adventures. Finally, I refer to globalization and the way that cultures are being homogenized under its influence, but opposition to the homogenization of cultures and to savage globalization is not opposition to all forms of capitalism. Mr. Warren misrepresents.

As for Mr. Warren’s claim that I mention “granting political power to the homeless and illegal aliens,” I am not sure exactly what in my book he is referring to. I do make this statement:

Being a Christian means rejecting allegiances to nation states and to any artificial lines that have been concocted by powerful men and women in order to divide human beings from one another. It means denying fatalism and nihilism the power to dictate what we do. It means loving the alien among us. It means proclaiming a vision of a society that is actually good news to those who are captive to debt. It means coming together to live as an alternative to inhuman structures (political, economic, and otherwise) that seek to conquer us by dividing us. In Christ, we are all united. That is the vision of what it means to be an ecclesia, and that is the vision the church has to offer up as a gift to the world.

I mention poor people and aliens, so perhaps that is what he is referring to. Maybe somewhere else I did mention giving “political power” to the homeless and aliens (although I wouldn’t have used the term “illegal aliens”). I think basically all human beings should have political power, equal political power, regardless of their social status. I was under the impression that the United States of America (where Mr. Warren and I both currently live) was a nation which cries out: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” I think that’s a good attitude for all nations to have; I think we need to be more cosmopolitan, and I strongly oppose the way current U.S. policy is seeking to deprive human beings of basic human rights on the grounds that they are not U.S. citizens. We are all humans; we are citizens first and foremost of earth, together.

Anyway, Mr. Warren claims that these few statements I make toward the end of my book are really what my book is all about. He’s implying that I have a distorted reading of the Bible because it serves my political purposes. This is nonsense. First, my readings of the biblical texts that feature in my book tend to contradict my own political views. Second, when I do discuss “contemporary application,” I preface that discussion and conclude it with a clear caveat:

These are my own applications of the text, and I do not pretend that they are necessarily the right or the only applications that should be drawn from the text. Of course, what is the appropriate use of the text will vary from context to context. Each confessing community must decide for itself how to make these and other texts useful for its own purposes. In what follows I am merely attempting to show how it is possible to hear God’s word, despite it. . . . These have been my own attempts, and I do not pretend that my musings should take the place of the discernment of the community. Each community must decide for itself how to make these and other texts useful for its own purposes; I have only made a few suggestions in the hope that my readings may prove useful to some. I have wanted to show how it is possible to hear God’s word, despite it. Beyond my own proposed readings, however, my argument has been that we must be honest with our scriptures, and that in many cases confrontational readings must be adopted, if we are to be honest with ourselves. (pp. 219, 231)

Clearly, then, Mr. Warren’s claim that my applications of the text are the whole “purpose” of the book is flatly contradicted, twice. I included those caveats at the beginning and end just so that conservative ideologues (Mr. Warren is an advocate for a “Christian civilization”) couldn’t use my own applications of the text as evidence that my whole book was nothing more than a way to sneak in a liberal political agenda. As if I needed to argue against inerrancy to justify a liberal Christian politics! There are countless inerrantists, prominent public figures, who do just fine deriving a liberal agenda from a Bible they believe is inerrant and/or infallible. Nevertheless, despite my disclaimers, Mr. Warren went ahead and made the false accusation anyway. I shouldn’t be surprised. Clearly, as anyone can see in the block quote above, the purpose of my book is emphasized in italics. (That’s even in italics in the book itself!) The purpose of my book was to argue that the problematic texts in the Bible need to be confronted, rather than swept under the rug or defended, if it is our goal to see ourselves truthfully. The Bible is our mirror. How we read it is how we see ourselves, and if we can’t read the Bible critically, then we will have trouble being critical of our practices, convictions, and endeavors.

Stark claims that he is still a Christian because of his Christian upbringing and because he still thinks that Jesus is an engaging person. But Stark denies that Jesus is Lord or Savior.

More misrepresentation. I do not deny that Jesus is Lord or Savior. I say that we need to be critical of the language of lordship, since it is derived from the ancient institution of slavery.

Stark claims to still believe in God, but he says that he rejects a God that issues moral commands.

No, I say that a good teacher teaches and that a bad teacher gives you all the answers. I believe that God teaches us what is true and what is good, but not through a divine command format.

It would be equivocation to call Stark’s finite being “God” with a capital “G,” or to call Stark a Christian. Thom Stark is the prophet of the religion of secularism, proclaiming his own way to political salvation by turning away (literally, apostasy) from the Biblical God and Christ.

Mr. Warren is entitled to his opinions. I don’t expect fundamentalists like him to be able to understand a faith like mine. I believe that it is impossible to have faith if we are certain we have the answer. We can’t have faith until we’re able to admit that we really don’t know. Then and only then, when we step out to pursue love and justice, will we be acting in faith. As for the charge that I am a “prophet of the religion of secularism,” that is interesting, since I don’t believe secularity exists!

Mr. Warren entitled his review, “A Book Full of Bad Reasons to Reject the God of the Bible.” I think I’ve shown, to the contrary, that Mr. Warren’s is a review full of bad reasons to dismiss my book. It is full of straw men, sleight of hand, and indications that Mr. Warren is a careless reader both of my book and of the biblical text. It is of course to be expected from those who are committed to defending the inerrancy of the Bible. But I do want to thank him, again, for taking the time to write it and for raising these issues, many of which I think are very important ones.

  1. In an earlier edition of this response I mistakenly took Mr. Warren’s reference to “v. 31” to be a reference to Exod 22:31. He didn’t specify chapter and book and the antecedent was Exod 22, so that’s why I misunderstood him. My thanks to Jared Thompson for pointing out my error. []
  2. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 353. []

Dating the Song of Moses

Robert Claypool asks:


You say on page 70 that “The Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 – alongside the Song of Miriam in Exodus 15 – is considered by scholars to be some of the oldest material in the Hebrew Bible, dating back roughly to the mid-thirteenth century BCE.”

Can you provide sources for this information? I have looked for it online, but the only dates I found are much later.

Also, if these passages were to be dated much later – say 600 BCE – would that weaken the argument you have made? Would critics be justified in saying that you favor an early date to support the thesis of Yahweh’s ascendancy?

Thank you! Robert Claypool

Robert, this is a great question.

Very few if any scholars would date the Song of Moses to the exilic period, and if they did, it would certainly not be a very tenable position. Most scholars nowadays date these large poetry blocks to the pre-monarchic period. I note on p. 129 fn.42 that the Song of the Sea in Exod 15 is dated by Frank Moore Cross earlier than the prose account in Exod 14. On page 124 of his Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, he dates the Song of the Sea to the late twelfth or early eleventh century BCE. The Song of Deborah is similarly dated within that pre-monarchic range, as is the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. Frank Moore Cross and David Noel Freedman date the song no later than the 10th century. Freedman writes:

I am as firmly convinced today as I was forty-five years ago that early [Hebrew] poems really are early. While it is true that many, perhaps most, serious scholars date this poetry across the whole spectrum of Israelite history . . . I believe that the whole corpus belongs to the earliest period of Israel’s national existence, and that the poems were composed between the twelfth and tenth—ninth centuries B.C.E. I have encountered neither compelling evidence nor convincing argument to the contrary, or to make me think otherwise.1

Admittedly, a mid-thirteenth century date (i.e., ca. 1250) is the earliest of possible estimates. But whether it’s mid-thirteenth or early-eleventh, the best evidence suggests that it predates the monarchic period or comes right at its inception and thus predates the rise of Yahweh to head of pantheon coinciding with the monarchy. Even after the transition to a monarchy, it would have taken some time for Yahweh to move up the ranks. Cross thinks that Deut 32 could be as late as the ninth century, but even then it would reflect traditions that were much earlier, and would have been written at a time when all of these ideas were still very much in flux. But to date it as late as the sixth century is to avoid the strong stylistic similarities between the Song of Moses and the other early hymns; moreover, Cross’s work with the DSS exposing the polytheistic Vorlage to the LXX undermines the reading of those who would date it late because it seems to them to reflect a monotheistic perspective.

Thanks again for your good question.

  1. Frank Moore Cross, Jr. and David Noel Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), x. []

Response to Diglot’s Review

Kevin, over at the illustrious book-review blog Diglotting, has written a very fine critical review of my book, The Human Faces of God. The review is in two parts, with part one covering the first seven chapters of the book, and part two tackling the last three chapters.

Kevin’s review is, I think, overwhelmingly a positive one, and he picks up on several aspects of my book that I think are very important. I won’t repeat his many points of agreement with me here; instead I will respond to the few criticisms that he made. I think they are important ones, and I am grateful to him for raising the issues.

First, in reference to my chapter on human sacrifice in the Bible. I argue that human sacrifice was acceptable orthopraxy for much of Israel’s history, until it came to be condemned by a handful of prophets in the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. Kevin writes that “overall this chapter did not convince me of the proposal regarding child sacrifice but Stark did make some salient points.”

What can’t be denied about the evidence is that Israelites did practice human sacrifice. We need no archaeological evidence for this; the evidence is in the text itself. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel would not have condemned the Israelite practice of human sacrifice if Israelites weren’t practicing it. So, as Kevin no doubt understands, that it happened cannot be disputed. The question is whether the practice enjoyed religious sanction or not. It is clear that in Micah 6:6-8, the sacrifice of one’s own child is held up as the ultimately example of sacrifice; Micah’s rhetoric would not have worked if his hearers didn’t share that assumption. But the most problematic text is Ezek 20:25-26. Ezekiel wishes to condemn the institution of human sacrifice, but in so doing plainly admits that it was commanded by Yahweh to the Israelites in the wilderness. Ezekiel’s way of resolving this problem is to claim that Yahweh only did so as a form of punishment. Israel doubted Yahweh, and so as punishment, Yahweh demanded that they sacrifice their firstborn sons to him as a first-fruits offering. That this is what Ezekiel says cannot be denied (the NIV’s best efforts to do so notwithstanding). So we are left with two options: either Ezekiel was right and Yahweh did command Israelites to sacrifice their children to him, but not because he really wanted it, rather only as a way of punishing them for their children. But of course, this would go against Ezekiel’s claim elsewhere that Yahweh does not punish the children for the sins of their parents. The other option is the one I think far more reasonable, namely that Ezekiel was stretching to explain away a troubling tradition that even he couldn’t deny was in the Law of Moses. The fact that he references the wilderness laws is also good indication that what we now call Exodus 22 was being appealed to by those who practiced child sacrifice in support of their brand of religiosity. So we have evidence that (1) Israelites practiced child sacrifice, that (2) they appealed to the law of Moses in defense of their practice, and that (3) Ezekiel affirmed that the command was indeed in the law of Moses. I am not sure which part of this is unconvincing to Kevin.

Perhaps he remains unconvinced for a different reason. A later criticism he raises with regard to this chapter has to do with the sparseness of my citations. Kevin writes that “there is not a great deal of footnotes to back up his assertions. I think that this could possibly make the reader assume it is just his own conjecture and not a widespread idea in scholarship. I’m not saying there are no references (as he does provide them at times), but I would have like to have seen more.”

This is a valid criticism as far as it goes. The challenge I faced was in trying to balance making the book accessible (which often involves not overloading the reader who is not used to pages full of footnotes) with making each argument as thoroughly supported by the secondary literature as possible. No doubt there are some instances in which I ought to have included more citations, and that is not to say that I couldn’t have provided them readily. No doubt, conversely, there are other instances where I may have used too many footnotes. I tried to make the best judgment I could with readability for the non-academic as my primary guiding light, but no doubt I made some wrong choices throughout.

That said, with reference to the chapter on human sacrifice, as I pointed out, much of my argument in certain sections was indebted to the work of Jon Levenson. So at the beginning of each pertinent section I would include an all-encompassing footnote, referring to Levenson’s fuller argument. Levenson engages the counterpoints of dissenting scholars in much greater detail in his academic volume than I was able to do my in my semi-popular treatment. Moreover, Levenson hardly represents a minority in this regard in terms of critical scholarship. So while Kevin is certainly correct that to some readers, it will appear as if my argument is weak due to lack of sources, I think that the few references I did provide are sufficient to support my argument, should those who are not convinced choose to chase down my sources.

No doubt there are other cases throughout the book (I don’t think the human sacrifice chapter is one of them necessarily) where I made claims that were not supported with secondary literature. But this was usually done consciously, on minor points and for the sake of readability. These are unfortunate choices that those who try to distill academic information for a wide readership have to make, and every choice one way or the other is a sacrifice (no pun intended).

Kevin does suggest that the book would have been much better served if I had included a subject bibliography at the end of each chapter, and that is a very valid criticism, and to be honest, the thought never occurred to me, but should have. He’s right about that. However, that would have raised the price of the book by a few dollars, since Wipf and Stock determines retail price according to page number. That is the very reason we chose not to include indexes in the book.

The second part of his review devotes by far the most space to my eighth chapter, “Jesus Was Wrong,” in which I argue that Jesus as presented by the Synoptic Gospels was an apocalyptic prophet who predicted that the final judgment of the world would occur within the lifetime of his first-generation disciples.

Here, Kevin agrees in broad strokes with most of my argument, but was not fully convinced that my thesis applied to every portrait painted of Jesus in each of the synoptics. Kevin discloses that he holds to a preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse, which essentially means that Jesus did not predict the end of the world, but rather just the destruction of Jerusalem. The preterist position sustains itself through a metaphorical interpretation of much of Jesus’ apocalyptic language, and it is a position that I devote no fewer than twelve pages in this chapter to refuting, particularly as it is expressed in the work of N. T. Wright.

Kevin agrees that my portrait of broader Jewish apocalypticism is accurate, but is not convinced that Jesus fits squarely within that apocalyptic script, as I argue he does. Kevin writes:

While I would agree that the apocalyptic worldview expected a restored paradise wrought by a decisive display of divine deliverance, I am not so convinced to attribute that worldview to Jesus (in its entirety), as I think the synoptics show that Jesus had an alternative and quite unconventional idea regarding the nature of the kingdom of God and what it would entail (e.g. Luke 17.20-21).

Kevin rightly notes that I anticipate this objection, the idea that Jesus had radically different ideas about the coming of the kingdom than did other Jewish apocalypticists. In my chapter I show what accounts for these differences, and that they aren’t radical. Indeed, the Qumranites shared the same variant on the standard apocalyptic script that Jesus did. Like Jesus, they believed that the kingdom of God was already breaking into the world through their agency, but that it was yet to come in a concrete and universal way, and imminently.

But Kevin cites Luke 17:20-21 as evidence that Jesus had a radically different view of the coming of the kingdom. Let’s look at that, and then we’ll see why it doesn’t reflect the radically different script that Kevin, and other preterists, suppose it does.

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

On Kevin’s reading, this means that for Luke at least, the kingdom of God is something different than what other Jewish apocalypticists supposed it was—that it was not a worldwide judgment and divine regime change at the “end of history”; rather it was a new way of existence breaking into the midst of the old.

I chart out on p. 166 how Jesus (and the Qumranites) saw the kingdom breaking in now among them, and yet still expected it to break in soon on a global scale. But let’s look at Luke 17:20-21 in its broader context.

First, note to whom Jesus is speaking. He’s not speaking to his disciples, he’s speaking to the Pharisees, his opponents. These are the ones who constantly seek a sign, the kind of sign Jesus refused to give them. Note in Luke 11:14-20, Jesus exorcises a demon and his opponents asked him for a further sign that the kingdom of God was coming through him. Jesus refused to give them any further sign than the obvious signs that were staring them straight in the face. This culminates with Jesus’ warning: “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.”

This is what scholars call the “proleptic” presence of the kingdom; Jesus’ ministry is a sign that the worldwide kingdom of God is imminent. It is not to Jesus’ disciples that these claims are made, but to Jesus’ opponents. He does the work of God, but they continue to disbelieve. They are missing the signs of the coming kingdom, even while they pretend to be open to seeing them.

The same motif pertains to Kevin’s passage in Luke 17. To the Pharisees, Jesus refuses to give any further sign, and warns them that the kingdom of God is already upon them, in and through him. But note that just a few verses later, after Jesus had finished speaking to the Pharisees, he turns to his own disciples, and that’s when he gives them the real message of the coming kingdom. He held back when speaking to the Pharisees, but discloses what is yet to come to his disciples:

Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them.” (Luke 17:22-27)

In the context of the Pharisees’ question about the coming kingdom, Jesus turns to his disciples and tells them that it is yet to come, and that they should not be fooled by those who claim that it has come. Jesus tells them that when it comes, they will not be able to miss it, like the Pharisees are now missing the signs of its coming. When he speaks to his disciples, Jesus offers a straight answer. The coming of the kingdom will not occur until after Jesus has suffered and been rejected by this generation.

Note further that in verse 33, in describing the destruction that is about to be heaped upon Jerusalem, Jesus says that “those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” This is a reference to resurrection. Those who lose their life in the period of intense suffering just prior to the judgment (the period of suffering that incites God’s judgment), they will get their lives back when the Son of Man comes.

No doubt, preterists like Kevin will respond that this passage does not refer to a worldwide judgment, but merely to the judgment upon the city of Jerusalem. This is in fact Kevin’s reading of the Olivet Discourse later in Luke 21. Kevin writes, “The preterist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse is not new – the author of Luke interpreted it this way (see Luke 21, especially verse 20).” But I emphatically disagree with Kevin that Luke reflects an early preterist view. First, Luke 21:20 does not offer a preterist interpretation, not in the slightest. It says, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.” All that is depicted here is the judgment upon Jerusalem. This is obviously in every version of the Olivet Discourse. What preterists miss is the obvious signs that it is the judgment upon Jerusalem that directly precedes the worldwide judgment.

Note that Jesus refers to the “desolation” of Jerusalem. This is again a reference to the “abomination that causes desolation” (see the parallels in Mark and Matthew) which refers to the desecration of the temple in the second century BCE by the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The book of Daniel referenced this “abomination that causes desolation” in chapter 11, but note what the script says, according to Daniel. The abomination that causes desolation isn’t the end of the story. In the book of Daniel, immediately after Jerusalem is made desolate, the archangel Michael rises up and destroys the enemies of God’s people and delivers the people of God, leading them into a period of everlasting peace, where the righteous dead are raised to life, and the wicked are punished. In Daniel, the desolation of the temple incites God to take vengeance on the enemies of Israel. This is precisely what we see taking place in Luke (as well as in Matthew and Mark).

Right after Luke’s Jesus mentions the desolation of Jerusalem, he instructs his disciples at that time to flee to the mountains, just as the Maccabean revolutionaries fled to the mountains in the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Then Luke says (v. 24) that Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the time of the Gentiles is fulfilled. What does this mean? It means that once the Romans attack Jerusalem, their time is pretty much up. When their time is up, that’s when the Son of Man will come on the clouds to avenge his people. There will be portents in the heavens, after the destruction of Jerusalem, and, according to Luke, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (21:26). Note that this describes a worldwide judgment, not merely a judgment on Jerusalem (which has already taken place). The judgment upon Jerusalem is precisely what instigates the judgment upon the world. Luke’s Jesus goes on:

Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

I make it clear in my chapter what this means. According to Luke, the redemption of the people of God follows immediately upon destruction of Jerusalem. When the Son of Man comes, that is the redemption of the people of God, not the judgment against them (which has already taken place). Kevin, I think, misses this. Luke’s Jesus concludes the discourse, saying,

Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.

If the disciples are able to escape the suffering that will come upon Jerusalem, then they will be there to stand before the Son of Man when he comes to deliver them from the Gentiles, when the Gentiles’ time has been fulfilled. This is precisely the same script we see in Daniel 11-12, as well as the same script we see in Zechariah 14, where God brings the Gentiles against Jerusalem in order to judge Jerusalem, only immediately to turn around and wipe out the Gentiles for doing so, ushering in an era of everlasting peace for Jerusalem and God’s people, and the worldwide hegemony of Israel. This is precisely what we see in Luke 21.

I think it is clear that there is no way to interpret Luke’s version of the Olivet Discourse in a preterist fashion.

Now, all of that is said in response to Kevin’s few criticisms of my argument, but his overall review, I think, was very positive. My responses to his criticisms shouldn’t be taken as an indication that I am not exceedingly grateful to Kevin for taking the time to write such a great review! I most certainly am. And it is clear that Kevin and I agree about a lot more than we disagree, and that is always nice.

Response to Russ Kuykendall Review

UPDATE: Kuykendall has now deleted his review of my book from Amazon.

Russ Kuykendall left a significant one-star review of my book on Amazon.com. You can read it here. My response is below:

I’d like to thank Russ Kuykendall for taking the time engage with my book and for writing an important and thought-provoking review and critique. Kuykendall’s critique is essentially one that takes place at the epistemological level, or so it would appear, and not one that takes issue substantively with the content of the various arguments I lay out in the book.

I’d like to respond in a few ways, both piecemeal to specific features of the review, as well as generally to the spirit of the whole.

First, while it is true that I come from a tradition that was originally indebted to the paradigms of Scottish Enlightenment, Baconian Common Sense, and Lockean rationality, it would be a mistake to conclude that I myself or my tradition as it stands broadly today continues to be beholden in any kind of strict or rigorous fashion to these epistemologies. It is true that I attempt to take my tradition “a further step” than it has generally been willing to go throughout much of its history (with notable exceptions of course), but it is also true, as Kuykendall points out, that I do this in order to expose the incompatibility of the Enlightenment approach to scripture and the inerrantist dogma that thinkers in my tradition and in broader Evangelicalism attempt (unsuccessfully) to sustain in harmony. This point should not be understated, since I consider my project to be pedagogical in nature.

In other words, while it is true that I am employing to a significant extent hermeneutical principles derived in part from Enlightenment principles, I do so consciously in order to adopt the perspective of those with whom I seek to engage and critique. For that reason, Kuykendall errs when identifying me as “every bit a child both of the Enlightenment as it is now expressed in contemporary culture and scholarship, including in theology, and a child of a religious tradition profoundly shaped by 18th-c. Scottish and New England Enlightenments.” The latter identification is especially ill-fitting since the hermeneutics of Baconian Common Sense to which my tradition was originally indebted, and as applied by the likes of Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and others, shares very few connections to the kind of historical criticism I employ in The Human Faces of God.

It is also important to call into question the veracity of Kuykendall’s assertion that the kinds of critical readings I engage in are essentially the products of Enlightenment epistemologies. Critical interpretation of texts is hardly a modern invention. For instance, well over a thousand years before the Enlightenment, scholars such as Celsus and Porphyry in the second and third centuries CE, respectively, took a critical eye to the Judeo-Christian scriptures and called into question, for instance, the biblical claims about the authorship and dating of Daniel. Like modern critical scholars, Celsus and Porphyry argued that the book of Daniel was composed during the mid-second century BCE during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. So it is hardly true that critical scholarship and readings of the Bible are derived from Enlightenment epistemologies primarily. Critical thinking has been a feature of the Western tradition since Socrates, at the latest.

Moreover, as I point out in my book, even Patristic theologians such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian recognized that the biblical text was sometimes very problematic when read at the historical-grammatical level; this means that even thinkers in the allegorical tradition knew how to read the Bible in the fashion I employ in my work and recognized, as I do, that such readings exposed problematic material in the Bible. When they employed allegory as a way of managing problematic texts, however, they were not throwing out the legitimacy of the historical-grammatical hermeneutic whole-cloth. They certainly employed the historical-grammatical hermeneutic as it suited them. Their reasons for rejecting the historical-grammatical hermeneutic in certain instances had to do with maintaining the usefulness of the text as scripture for the church, which is something that I myself am concerned to do in my book, although I do this in different ways than did Origen, Gregory and others, and my reasons for this are spelled out clearly in my ninth and tenth chapters.

For these reasons, the myth that historical and critical readings of scripture are necessarily indebted to Enlightenment epistemologies needs a thorough debunking, and the claim that my approach to scripture is thoroughly the product of Enlightenment thinking is a sweeping claim made without sufficient evidence necessary to substantiate it.

Kuykendall further claims that the problematic texts that I examine in my book are “especially problematic to Christians conditioned by the Enlightenment.” Implied here is a claim that these texts are less problematic, or perhaps unproblematic, for those who have been liberated from the epistemological constraints of Enlightenment. It may or may not be true that these texts are more problematic for those conditioned by the Enlightenment, but what is emphatically not true is that these texts were not problematic for pre-modern thinkers, for the Church Fathers, and for the early church itself.

As I show throughout the course of my arguments, many of the questions we have about problematic texts were questions shared by some of the writers of the Old and New Testaments themselves, and we can clearly see the various ways in which they attempted to struggle with and resolve the problematic nature of biblical material. The same is true for many of the Church Fathers; as already mentioned, Origen, Gregory and Cassian explicitly rejected the literal sense of certain texts precisely because the literal sense rendered the texts problematic. Thus, it is clear that many of the texts I evaluate in my book have been problematic from the very beginning, and long before the Enlightenment imposed upon us its totalizing materialist and rationalist epistemologies. Thus, Kuykendall is mistaken if wishing to imply that it was the Enlightenment itself that made these texts problematic, though in fairness this claim is not explicitly made in Kuykendall’s review.

For these reasons also I ought to note my objection to the way that John J. Collins (who holds my utmost respect and admiration), in his foreword to my book, characterizes the issues of biblical genocide and human sacrifice as problematic to us “in the modern world.” No doubt Collins would want to clarify that these are not problems only from a modern viewpoint, but I want to stress this point with a certain degree of urgency. These texts are problematic to human beings in any age, as is clear from the fact that the Bible itself consists of a variety of perspectives on these issues. Perspectives assumed by some biblical writers were condemned as thoroughly problematic by others. The contradictions we find in scripture on issues such as corporate or individual guilt and punishment display that it is not simply our “modern” perspective that renders many of the biblical ideas problematic.

Kuykendall states that I “refuse a mask,” even as I unmask “Enlightenment evangelical Christians.” To be honest, I am unsure exactly what Kuykendall is suggesting when stating that I “refuse a mask.” If this statement is meant to suggest that I pretend to come at these issues from an objective standpoint, free of all tradition, then Kuykendall is again mistaken. I make no such claim, nor would I, as I am acutely aware of many of the traditions, ideologies and epistemologies that inform my approach to the text. If Kuykendall’s critique is that I do not devote sufficient space to the articulation of my assumptions, this is a point well taken. Such discussions are indeed helpful, but my decision simply to engage the text without an extended prolegomena on methodology and epistemology is one I made for the sake of brevity.

If Kuykendall or others wish to suggest that the absence of such a prolegomena inhibits understanding of my project, then I am happy to respond to specific questions in order to make my argument more intelligible to those who are having trouble apprehending the nature of my position. However, it is my thinking on this that such discussions are often more helpful when they are offered in response to specific questions in conversation, rather than made as blanket statements abstracted from the concerns of various individuals and interpretive communities. I find that often when writers attempt to address all possible methodological and epistemological objections, the discussion becomes unruly and distracts from the cogency of the project at hand.

That said, it is clear that Kuykendall believes that my project was at least somewhat successful and coherent without such a prolegomena, since Kuykendall believes that, “in his removing the masks [of Enlightenment epistemologies], Stark does service.”

However, Kuykendall goes on to call into question the necessity of my overall project. Kuykendall asks, “But once the unmasking is done (and it should be), does the world really need yet one more Enlightenment reading and deconstruction of the biblical narrative? Beyond the unmasking, where is the charity in any Enlightenment reading of the biblical narrative?”

Here I take issue with Kuykendall’s characterization of the situation on a couple of points. First, as I have already articulated, Kuykendall has only assumed and has not shown how my reading of the text is beholden to Enlightenment. Again, it is patently not true that critical readings of scripture (or any text) are the invention of, and belong entirely within the domain of, Enlightenment epistemology.

Second, Kuykendall asks whether “the world” needs another book deconstructing the biblical text. This is an important question, I suppose, but I do not think that there can be any definitive answer to it one way or the other. In fact, it seems to me that Kuykendall oversteps appropriate bounds when asking this question on behalf of “the world.” It seems clear to me from the fact that Kuykendall gave my book a one-star rating on Amazon.com that Kuykendall did not find my book necessary. I have a few things to say in response to this.

First, I am very glad to hear that my work is not necessary to Kuykendall and (presumably) to a significant number of other human beings throughout “the world.” It is obviously my hope that books like mine will one day no longer be necessary at all, though I am extremely dubious that humankind in general, and Christianity in particular, will ever attain to such a state of (if I may be ironic here) “enlightenment.”

Second, it may very well be that another book like mine is not “necessary,” but ultimately the question from my perspective is not whether my book is “necessary” but whether it is “useful” or “helpful” to those who read it. There are many things in this life that are not necessarily necessary but which are nevertheless useful and helpful for us as we seek to navigate our worlds. It is my hope that my book will prove useful for some, though I do not have any pretensions that it will or ought to be useful for everybody.

The reality is, however (and I articulated this in my preface), that I have tried to write the book that would have been useful for me, ten years ago. Moreover, the dozens of responses I have received so far from those who have read my book and found it useful indicate to me that despite its superfluity to some like Kuykendall, it is a book that many in “the world” will find useful for their own purposes. That is all I hope for, and never made any claims about the significance of my book more totalizing than that, nor would I.

Finally, Kuykendall asks where the “charity” is in any Enlightenment reading, and this question puzzles me somewhat. I am not sure what to take to be the implication here. If Kuykendall is suggesting that my appropriation of the data is wholly deconstructive and not constructive, then I take sharp objection to this evaluation. As for the question of whether there can be “charity” in critical readings of the scriptures, my view is that critical readings are emphatically charitable, in the sense that charity depends upon truthfulness. It would be uncharitable not to read morally and theologically problematic texts critically. In my book I argue that in order to have a constructive biblical theology that can employed in service of charity, we must be honest with our texts. In short, I look at critical readings of the texts as the first step in what one might call a “tough love” hermeneutic. My approach is both critical and constructive, and I argue that one without the other results in a false charity.

Kuykendall references Alasdair MacIntyre’s Gifford Lectures, which were formative for me early in my theological journey, and which I believe are not incompatible with the approach I take to scripture and tradition in my book. In fact, I contend that my discussion of authority and tradition in my final chapter could be articulated in thoroughly MacIntyrian terminology. To understand my position to be in tension with MacIntyre’s discussion of the way traditions work and develop is either to misunderstand my argument, or to misunderstand MacIntyre’s. This is true despite my disagreement with some of MacIntyre’s more sweeping claims about the incoherency of liberalism. I am in considerable agreement with Jeffrey Stout’s criticisms of MacIntyre’s sweeping denunciations of liberalism as well as with his criticisms of the mythological nature of MacIntyre’s portrait of a purist pre-modern epistemology.

Kuykendall asks where the “Enlightenment self-awareness of what predicates its critique” is in my work. In response I can only say that Kuykendall has failed to identify at what point in my critique I am indebted to an untenable set of Enlightenment assumptions. While it is true that I am (like everyone else in the Western world) in part a child of Enlightenment, the reality and totality of the picture is much more complex. There is no sharp line that can be drawn between pre-modern, modern, and post-modern thought, and the penchant in contemporary discourse to use these descriptors as a short-hand and totalizing dismissal of a given project is in my estimation a reflection of a broad discursive malaise that is characteristic of a general human propensity for polemics over patient and careful dialogue with the Other. These epithets do little more than to create gulfs between interpretive communities and are not characteristic of the vocabulary of those who seek genuine understanding.

Kuykendall further asks where “the reading on the biblical narrative’s own terms” is in my work, and to this question I can only gaff. The mistake Kuykendall makes is to place the possessive apostrophe on the left-hand-side of the “s” in “narratives.” The reality is that there is not one biblical narrative in the singular, but a variety of biblical narratives, and to misunderstand this point is to do precisely what Kuykendall implies I have done: to fail to take these narratives seriously on their own terms. Taking the biblical narratives seriously on their own terms is exactly the project I have undertaken in my book, and if it takes an “Enlightenment” epistemology in order to do that, then we all ought to thank the heavens for the Enlightenment. Of course, as I have argued, modern human beings do not owe their capacity to listen to voices on their own terms either to the Enlightenment or to any other mythological epochal construct. We have in every epoch, however, fashioned many ways to avoid listening to voices on their own terms, and this is what I have sought to avoid in my work, as much as is possible.

What Kuykendall seems to have failed to see in my work is that my project is essentially about letting the multiple and diverse voices in the biblical text speak to us on their own terms, first, before we as participants in an ongoing tradition begin the process of engaging those voices critically and constructively. The voices in the Bible must speak to us out of their own contexts first, before we can appropriate those voices in a collective fashion as Scripture. If we do not permit them to do so, then Scripture is only a one-sided dialogue with ourselves and is therefore not Scripture. Scripture is not solely what the Bible says, nor is it solely what the Church says. Scripture is the Bible and the Church in dialogue with one another. My position should not be mistaken for a thoroughgoing materialist position; though it contains materialist elements in the initial reading of the text, it goes beyond materialism once the text has had a chance to speak in its own voice. I clearly articulate a hermeneutic that makes room for the Spirit to speak through the text to the faith community.

That is the argument of my book, and the argument I think Kuykendall has failed to apprehend. However, I am deeply grateful to Kuykendall for raising these very important issues and in doing so, forcing me to make my position clearer to those who come to texts (the Bible and my book) with Kuykendall’s assumptions. It should be clear that those who share Kuykendall’s assumptions were not my primary audience, but I have no wish to ignore them, and so I am grateful for the opportunity here to engage with them in this fashion.

Response to KC James Review

UPDATE: KC James has now deleted his review for the second time.

UPDATE: KC James deleted his original review (along with the long comment thread) and reposted it, with a minor addition. However, he did not delete his criticism regarding the absence of indexes in the back of the book, even though he already knew that there are indexes provided online. This seems disingenuous.

The minor addition to his review is as follows:

For example, his arguments about genocide, which, if it took place, tends to ignore the struggle for survival that the Israelites found themselves in. (Of course, Thom attempts to deal with this in the section on the Cannanites, but I simply disagree.) In a later era, they found their existence threatened but did NOT fight back in any organized manner, and would have been exterminated if it had not been for what can be called the genocidal methods of the Allied powers.

And, of course, even in our own time they are being threatened with extermination and may have to repond with the genocidal methods provided by modern Science itself, or fact extermination in that part of the world.

My response: KC “simply disagrees” with my “attempts to deal with this,” but doesn’t say why, and doesn’t say what my attempts to deal with it are. The fact is, I showed unequivocally (both from the text itself and from the archaeological record) that the Canaanite genocides could not have been defensive wars, and even if they were, a defensive war does not justify the wholesale slaughter of non-combatants and children. Thus, KC’s point is moot.

My original response to KC’s original review is as follows:

KC James left a three-star review of my book on Amazon. Although I quote it in its entirety and in chronological order here in my response, those interested can read it here without my interruptions.

I want to thank KC James for taking the time to read the book and for taking the time to review it. I appreciate KC especially because he and I have such sharp disagreements on some issues, yet I think his review was honest and relatively fair. I’d like to respond to some of his comments, but I want to do so only because it’s understood that I’m appreciative of his comments. Even though I take issue with some of them, I think they are generally helpful and bring up relevant issues. That said, I’ll get on with my responses.

KC titles his review, “Good Writing, But Nothing New.” I’m pleased to hear KC thinks I am at least a decent writer. It’s also a sign of his good character that he takes the time to include a compliment about a book with which he has such substantial disagreement.

“Nothing new.” Well, as I explained in my preface, the purpose of the book was to distill scholarly information in an accessible manner for non-scholars. So while there isn’t much in the book that is original to me (although I do make some small original contributions in places), there is some material in here that has not appeared in popular form until now. Of course, much of the material has appeared around and about the place, but I didn’t write the book to be original; I wrote the book because it represents the most important issues that challenged my faith and led me to a transformation process in my thinking.

Stark has a feisty style, but this is just the latest version of the type of stuff you can get from Bart Ehrman and the like.

That may or may not be the case. In many places, I make much more extensive arguments than Ehrman has. My exegesis of the relevant discourses in the Gospels, for instance, is more extensive than that provided in Ehrman’s (still very good) volume on the subject, as is my response to Christian apologists.

Its touted as being so honest, but he makes his arguments like there is no real possibility of disagreement from the other side.

I take issue with this characterization, though it is an important issue to bring up, and I’m glad KC did so. I tried to be as honest with the material as possible, and I do believe that an honest approach to the data will result in an interpretation much like my own. In short, I am convinced of my position. But I take those who disagree with me very seriously, and this is evinced in the fact that I spend so much time responding to and refuting their arguments, particularly in chapters 6 and 8.

Example, the ten pages of so is which he dismissively talks about N.T. Wright.

I take issue with this characterization as well. N. T. Wright has been a huge influence on me and I have read almost everything he’s written. I have read everything he has written on the historical Jesus. It is a mischaracterization to say that I am “dismissive” of N. T. Wright’s interpretation of the Olivet Discourse. If I were merely being dismissive, I wouldn’t have devoted twelve pages to responding to his argument. The fact that I spend twelve pages critiquing him shows that I hold him in high regard, even if I am convinced that his interpretation of the data is very problematic. As I pointed out in the book, I used to hold to Wright’s position, so my critique of his position comes from the perspective of someone who was once persuaded by it.

(This is ironic since so far as I can tell Thom has no advanced academic qualifications or expertise in the history and languages of the time…I don’t think he is even working on a Ph.D.)

This is both inaccurate and irrelevant. It’s true that at present I am not working on a PhD. I am applying to PhD programs, but I am currently a third-year graduate student in religious studies. It is true that I do not yet have my degree, but that does not mean I am not qualified and competent to make the arguments I’ve made. KC’s claim that I have no qualifications or expertise in the history and languages of the time is inaccurate. I am competent in biblical Greek. I am competent in biblical Hebrew, according to doctoral level entrance standards, and had my training in Hebrew from a professor who received his PhD in Semitic Studies from Harvard University. As for qualifications in the history of the ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible and second temple literature, I have taken extensive graduate level coursework under the tutelage of a professor who received his PhD in Semitic Studies from Johns Hopkins University and is a world-renowned expert in ancient Near Eastern history, archaeology, and epigraphic materials, and who was a post-graduate teaching fellow at Johns Hopkins University for two years. I have had my training in New Testament studies under a professor who received his PhD from Boston University. The only remaining coursework I have left to take toward my degree are required courses that are unrelated to ANE and biblical studies. I have had two-and-a-half years of graduate level coursework in biblical studies and broader ANE and second temple literature. So while it’s true that I am not yet a PhD student, the reality is that I am qualified and competent to make the kinds of arguments I’ve made in this book.

Or when he talks about the end times he seems to think that for the people of the time Jesus lived in that the end did not in fact arrive, for them. Their entire society was leveled and dispersed.

I take issue with this criticism as well. This hinges upon an interpretation of the word “end” and is irrelevant to the actual statements made by Jesus about the final judgment, as I argued extensively in chapter 8 of my book. KC has not challenged any one aspect of my interpretation of the material or of my criticisms of Wright’s interpretation of the material. I showed how Wright’s interpretation does not do justice to the actual language used in the text.

As for my qualifications to critique N. T. Wright, a few comments. Although I do not hold a PhD yet, the reality is that my critique of N. T. Wright has been approved by leading experts in historical Jesus studies and second temple apocalyptic literature, such as Dale Allison and John Collins. So the issue is not really that I am “unqualified” to disagree with N. T. Wright. The issue is whether my criticisms are good ones or not. Dale Allison and John Collins did not dismiss my work and criticisms of Wright out of hand because I am not “qualified.” The real question pertains to the soundness of my arguments, not the letters behind my name.

But of course, the lack of letters behind my name will no doubt be a talking point among those who disagree with my positions.

Finally, N. T. Wright was making criticisms of people with PhD’s before he had his PhD. If he wasn’t doing that, then he never could have obtained his doctorate. Students are encouraged to critique scholars and to publish their criticisms if they can. And really, it doesn’t take someone with a PhD to see that Wright misuses much of the biblical material to make his case for preterism, as I showed in chapter 8 of my book.

The clincher is that at the end when he asks rhetorically what “foundation” we can rely on, he just asserts that there is none. Of course, as such, he has sawed off the limb he is sitting on and has no objective foundation from which to launch his attack and express his moral indignation.

All this criticism does is display KC’s commitment to a foundationalist epistemology which is untenable, and almost completely ignores the extensive discussion of the problem of “foundationalism” I offer in chapter 10. It is a criticism that only has weight to those who hold the assumptions I have critiqued at length in my book, and therefore begs the question.

And the fact that there is not index is a real weakness for what is supposed to be a scholarly book.

We chose to leave indexes out of the book to make the retail price more affordable for buyers, but multiple indexes have been provided online at the book’s official website.

Although I take issue with much of KC’s criticisms, I appreciate the relevance of the issues his criticisms have raised, and can only refer those interested to my book, where I believe I have adequately addressed those issues, despite KC’s largely unsubstantiated protestations to the contrary.

In closing, let me again thank KC James for taking the time to write his review and to speak his mind. I am grateful he has done so and I hope his comments and my responses will be helpful to many.

Response to Daniel Karistai Review

Daniel Karistai kindly took the time to review my book, here. Below is my response:


I want to thank you very much for taking the time to engage with my book and to write this review. I’m very pleased that you found it to be engaging, and I’m grateful that you’re spreading the word.

You only made a few criticisms, so I’ll just respond to those briefly.

Although I don’t “deal” with Matthew 25 in an exhaustive sense, it does come up in my discussion of the “escape clause” on pp. 186–87. I agree that the first two parables in Matt 25 would have been included in light of the fact that the parousia did not occur immediately after the destruction of the temple as anticipated. Matthew would have been writing about a decade or more after those events, most scholars conclude. However, I do not think it is accurate to say that Matt 25 is delaying the parousia “indefinitely.” As I argued, the thrust of the parables in Matt 25 is still imminence. If we take them seriously, their message is that there is absolutely no time to engage even in routine day-to-day affairs. While this is somewhat hyperbolic, the message is clearly that the parousia is still expected sooner rather than later. Thus, as I argued in the book, even as late as the 80s, the expectation of an imminent final judgment was still a feature of Christian belief, at least in many of the circles represented in the NT.

I disagree with your interpretation of Matt 28:20. You said that the statement, “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” “suggests a certain longevity to the commission that a judgment that’s right around the corner doesn’t afford.”

This is not true if Jesus is saying these words in 33 CE or thereabouts. This would only be a few months at most after the Olivet Discourse, bear in mind. The end of the age was still several decades off, so his claim to be “with them” until the end arrived does not imply any extended longevity. Even if these words aren’t ipsissima verba, and they were added by the author for his own purposes, their significance would be that Christ is still with the community, and that the end of the age is near.

As for Acts 1:8, I do deal with that text in a couple of places, particularly on pp. 187 and 203, and note also fn. 54 on p. 203. I do not think it speaks to an indefinite delay, but again even there the logic of imminence is underneath; they are to focus on the task not the precise date, precisely because the time is near.

Finally, with regards to John, note that on p. 206 I do indicate that the fourth Gospel is one of the few voices in the NT (the other being 2 Peter) that has tried to reconfigure apocalyptic and make an apologetic for the delay. John does this through a sort of realized eschatology as you point out (though John still does have a concept of a second coming), and 2 Peter does this by extending the timing of the parousia indefinitely.

So while there is certainly more to be said on these subjects, I think that I did try to deal with them in the book, and I don’t think they represent a significant challenge to my thesis.

Daniel, thanks again, very much, for your time and your engagement!

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