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Ben Witherington Makes Up Stuff about Historicity of Jesus

Posted by NT Wrong on January 4, 2009

witheringtonLeo takes apart Ben Witherington’s comments from an Australian Radio Show, ‘G’Day World’ (recorded in September 2008).

“During this very interview, he says a few things that are so untrue that it saddens me. It saddens me to hear them coming out of the mouth of someone who is seen as a respectable expert in his field by the many students under his tutelage, who naturally assume he is being honest… what bugs me is the outright falsehoods that he let slip out in his passionate rhetoric during this interview. Moreover, not only are they egregious falsehoods; they are stated so haughtily, so smugly author[it]atively that it makes them doubly shameful to my eyes.”

Leo provides a good discussion of unsupportable overstatements and assertions made by Ben Witherington, namely:

  • Witherington misquotes Greco-Roman authors as “claiming” to rely on Roman records, when they do not make such a claim (whether or not good arguments can be raised that they did rely on official records);
  • Witherington claims that Origen ‘certainly’ quoted from Josephus’ ‘Flavium Testamonium’ in the former’s commentary on John, without being able to provide support when challenged by the interviewer;
  • Witherington makes the old apologetic argument for the truth of the resurrection from the alleged behaviour of Jesus’ earliest disciples in preaching the Gospel — despite the absence of contemporary evidence, [and with recourse to the ‘the disciples must either be Liars or Truth-tellers’ false dichotomy, which depends on the omission of some far more probable further options].

While these half-truths and misrepresentations are common in popular apologetical works, Leo is correct to lament that it is a great shame a biblical scholar – widely known in conservative circles – would recite such unsupported claims to less discerning acolytes. Witherington’s comments were either misleading or plain false (although, I wouldn’t dispute his ‘honesty’, as Leo does) — and this in a field in which there is already a plethora of disinformation fed to the public.

Make sure you read Leo’s very good post, which contains transcriptions of Ben Witherington’s comments, together with Leo’s responses.

Posted in Fundamentalism, Historiography, Jesus & Christ | 14 Comments »

Creation Science 101 – A Song by Roy Zimmerman

Posted by NT Wrong on December 26, 2008

Posted in Fundamentalism, Humour, Music, Science | 1 Comment »

Jerry Falwell’s God – A Song by Roy Zimmerman

Posted by NT Wrong on December 6, 2008

“That was out loud – did you know that?”

Posted in Fundamentalism, Humour | Comments Off on Jerry Falwell’s God – A Song by Roy Zimmerman

ESV Endorsed By Lesbians

Posted by NT Wrong on December 3, 2008

The translators of the ESV are planning a special 'Lesbian Edition' of the ESV, following an endorsement from Lesbians for the Increase of Christian Knowledge (LICK).

Proposed New ESV cover: The translators of the ESV are planning a special 'Lesbian Edition' of the ESV, following an endorsement from Lesbians for the Increase of Christian Knowledge (LICK).

The new ESV translation of the Bible (alternatively, ‘English Standard Version’ or ‘Evangelical Standard Version’) has now been endorsed by Lesbians for the Increase of Christian Knowledge (LICK).

Although this may come as a surprise to those who are acquainted with the mainly conservative, androcentric ESV translation, it appears that the ESV has also slipped in the odd pro-Lesbian passage. For example, check out the ESV’s translation of Luke 17.35:

There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.”

As Mark Strauss prudishly explained at the 2008 Evangelical Theological Society Meeting:

“In contemporary English, “grinding together” suggests seductive dancing or something worse. (Perhaps both should have been taken for judgment!)”

“Something worse,” huh? I bet Mark Strauss can only imagine how these two women were grinding together. I bet he spent some time imagining it, too.

On the other hand, in an official press release, LICK has approved the ESV translation as endorsing the salvation of (at least some) lesbians, which is a considerable improvement from earlier conservative evangelical positions.

“I think this shows that God likes a good scissor,” commented LICK spokesperson Sapphie Powerscourt.

Posted in Biblical interpretation, Fundamentalism, Gender, Humour | 7 Comments »

The Absurdity of Genesis 1 – Just-So Stories – Literal Meaning; Non-Literal Apologetic Interpretation

Posted by NT Wrong on November 28, 2008


A Cartoon from Answers in Genesis, an organization whose members believe, like me, that Genesis 1 refers to a literal 6-day creation. Unlike me, however, they think the biblical authors described the universe in much the same way as modern science (as opposed to their literal belief in a 3-tiered 'universe').

Chris Heard at Higgaion has got wound up
about Steven Pinker’s ridicule of the account of creation in Genesis 1. Steven Pinker, seeing things from a solely scientific point of view, criticises Genesis 1 for saying the world was created in six days and light was created before the sun. For Pinker, Genesis 1 contains “absurdities” in light of modern scientific knowledge. But for Chris Heard, these very absurdities show that Genesis 1 was not intended to be read as literal fact but as “non-literal” or “metaphorical” accounts.

It’s a common enough debate. And both sides are wrong.

Pinker and modern scientific critics are wrong when they do not take account of the fact that Genesis 1 is not only making mundane “how” statements, but also answering cosmological and divine “how” and “why” statements. That is, when scientists write off the whole text on scientific grounds, they can sometimes falsely reduce the biblical text to something that only deals with mundane “how” questions. This is obviously not the case with Genesis 1. Yet this is a comparatively minor mistake compared to the apologetic interpreters.

The metaphorical apologists will also be wrong if they simply choose to interpret Genesis 1 as “non-literal” or “metaphorical” — whenever a literal reading would demonstrate a biblical passage to be incorrect in light of modern science. If science shows that the “days” of Genesis 1 cannot literally be correct, the apologists will be wrong if they choose a non-literal interpretation merely as an apologetic ploy to save the text. There must be better grounds for interpreting either metaphorically or literally. But in the case of Genesis 1, the difficulty with a literal interpretation so often forces apologetic interpreters into choosing the metaphorical alternative, rather than considering the meaning of the text. The apologetic intepretation is motivated by the perceived need to “save” the biblical text.

Now, Chris Heard claims he has good grounds for a non-literal interpretation. His reasoning is that the absurdities we moderns see in Genesis 1 are so obviously absurd, that even ancient Judean authors and their audiences would have known they were absurd. Thus, we must conclude that Genesis 1 was always intended metaphorically:

“I seriously doubt that any ancient Judean of any period could fail to notice that, “absurdly,” the Genesis 1 story operates on a cycle of evening and morning for three days in the absence of sun and moon, which allow humans to measure days. In fact, the narrator even calls attention to this “absurdity” by specifying that sun and moon function as timekeepers … The ancient believers who created, edited, preserved, and transmitted knew very well that you can’t measure days without reference to the sun. They knew very well that Genesis 1 presented a schematic account of creation rather than an historical (much less scientific) one.”
– Chris Heard, ‘Absurdities as Genre Markers’

(I note in passing that a similar apologetic argument from “absurdity” is offered by certain New Testament scholars, who argue, for example, that Matthew’s account of zombie saints rising from the dead and wandering around Jerusalem is just so “absurd” that it must be true.)

The thing is, while these things are certainly absurd for me, for Chris Heard, and for quite a few other modern, academically minded folk, there was no such “absurdity” 2000+ years ago. The apologetic explanation is nothing more than a “just-so story” about perceived absurdity, lacking any serious attempt to study the ancient reception of Genesis 1. And when we do look at its ancient reception, we see that — far from being viewed as “absurd” and “metaphorical” — it was usually viewed as an oddity that had a miraculous but quite literal explanation. Sure, it wasn’t “history” or “science” in a modern, empirical understanding of those fields. But the apologetic alternatives which are offered (‘metaphor’ or ‘modern scientific textbook’) provide nothing more than a simplistic false dichotomy. In reality, the authors of Genesis 1 were just as interested in “how” questions as modern scientists, although they were also quite interested in questions about the “how” and “why” of cosmological and divine matters compared with their modern counterparts.

James Barr — who was much more knowledgeable than Steven Pinker concerning the Old Testament, and much less apologetic than the metaphor-apologists — comments:

“About the actual processes of the origin of the world as we know them, [the author of Genesis 1] knew, of course, nothing, and set against our knowledge of these processes his account is certainly ‘wrong’. Since, on the other hand, the processes and sequences which are known to us through modern science were certainly totally unknown to him, this ‘wrongness’ is quite irrelevant in our understanding the story.”
– James Barr, Fundamentalism. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977: 41

Quite contrary to Chris Heard’s arguments, the ancient reception of Genesis 1 demonstrates that they usually took the first chapter of the Bible quite literally in its statement concerning the time of the creation of light — out of ignorance of any necessary causal connection between the sun and light on earth. Light, in the understanding of the ancient authors of Genesis 1, could just as easily be literally created before the sun as after it:

– A common interpretation of Genesis 1 was that God created “light” on Day 1 without revealing it yet. It was only revealed on Day 4. So Jubilees 2.2 explains that on Day 1 God prepared the light “in the knowledge of his heart”. The light was literally created in the divine realm, but was not literally set in place in the firmament. Likewise, 11QPsa (11Q Hymn to the Creator) explains that God literally divided light from darkness on Day 1, but that this was prepared “in the knowledge of his heart”.

– Utilising Psalm 104.2, others explained that the “light” of Day 1 literally came from God’s own glory or shekinah, literally distinguished from the light which came literally from the sun and moon on Day 4. So Genesis Rabba 3.4.

– b. Ḥagigah 12a makes the claim that the “light” of Day 1 was a miraculous light which would have allowed people to see from one end of the earth to another. After Adam’s fall, that light has been kept for the messianic age.

The preference for a “non-literal”, “metaphoric” interpretation of Genesis 1 is nothing more than a modernist attempt — in the light of modern science — to save the meaning of Genesis 1. This is still the case when the apologetic interpretation is misleadingly contrasted with the interpretation of Genesis 1 as “a scientific textbook”, as though that were the only alternative.

Posted in Fundamentalism, Historiography, Metaphor, Pentateuch | 10 Comments »

Evangelicals against and for (against) ‘Postmodernism’

Posted by NT Wrong on November 28, 2008

There seem to be at least two ways in which evangelical Christians have misappropriated the term “postmodernism”. One of these ways is described by Robert C. Greer in Mapping Postmodernism, and can also be seen in the blurb to G.K. Beale’s book and in William Dever’s rant against minimalists. This approach is a retrenchment back into what was falsely assumed to be a doctrinally secure positivism. Here’s Greer (p. 14):

“A number of books have been published in the 1990s and early 2000s excoriating postmodernism and admonishing the Christian community to stand firm against the postmodern tide saturating the West. In the pulpits, on the radio and on television, this same message has been presented. With Bible in hand the Christian believer argues for absolute truth, often with the words ‘Thus sayeth the Lord” serving as a centrepiece to his or her arguments. Hence, where polemical works had previously targeted secular Christianity as one of Christianity’s chief foes, the new foe is postmodernism. Only by understanding and embracing that which constitutes absolute truth, leaders within the Christian community explained, could the battle be waged successfully.”

Here’s an example, in the introduction to The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World (2007) by John Piper, Voddie Baucham, D. A. Carson, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, and David Wells:

“Many would have us believe that life is hopelessly fragmented and truth an elusive dream. The authors of this book beg to differ and enthusiastically point us to the cohesive centrality and absolute supremacy of Jesus Christ.”

The other approach is that followed by those sympathetic with ’emergent/emerging’ movements, and involves taking those bits of ‘postmodern’ thinkers which attack secular modernism, and thereby providing a defence of the same absolute truth of Christianity, without being quite so explicit as to the grounds (if any can be spelled out) for such absolute truth. It’s the ‘Christianity is absolutely true, because all truth is relative, and so my claim for absolute truth is equally valid’ argument. It’s never said like that, of course, because that would expose the odd inconsistency of the position — using a relativistic epistemology to support absolute truth, and then naming that absolute truth as specifically traditional orthodox Christianity. And the problem is deeper than that. There’s a careful selectivity from thinkers who are grouped as ‘postmodernists’, taking only those parts of what they say that can be useful, while refusing the full (anti-authoritarian, indeterminate, anti-metanarrative) implications of what they are saying.

Neither approach has much interest in what the so-called ‘postmodern’ thinkers say. One simply opposes it, the other mines it for material. Both are defensive positions, and where there’s defense, there’s usually tendentious use rather than reading. But in that dichotomy, which is really a sliding scale, I guess I’m revealing I think modernism has a few good and worthwhile features, yet.

Posted in Books, Fundamentalism | 3 Comments »

Peter Enns: ‘Leading Postmodernist’

Posted by NT Wrong on November 27, 2008

kjv1611In the ‘What Planet are Conservative Evangelicals On?’ Category, G.K. Beale has released a book which seeks to reinstate old-fashioned ultra-inerrancy as “a fundamental part of [evangelicalism’s] vibrant future”.

But wait, it gets nuttier…

The book’s blurb, which reflects the substance of Beale’s complaint against Peter Enns in his earlier book review, describes Enns as a “leading postmodernist”!!!

“In The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism, Beale vigorously yet even-handedly meets the challenges presented by leading postmodernist Peter Enns.”

For those who don’t get the joke, Enns is very conservative himself — but hasn’t got quite as big an inerrancy-carrot stuck up his ‘authorized version’ as those ultra-conservative fundie fringers who inhabit the atavistic hovels of darkness called the Westminster Theological Seminary and Wheaton College.

But what gets me is the “postmodern” label. Hasn’t this just become an empty label fundamentalists apply when they realize they have no idea what’s going on? Does anyone believe that Peter Enns is the new Derrida? If Peter Enns were to opine that “there is nothing outside the text”, he would only be affirming sola scriptura, not irresolvable textual indeterminacy.

What’s more, “postmodernism” occurred in the 1980s. It’s over. Well over. Times and ideas have changed. There’s only one source printing books which rant about “postmodernism” these days: conservative evangelical publishers.

Update: Art Boulet at Finitum Non Capax Infiniti provides a review that dares to go beyond the book’s blurb and finds even more nuttiness

Posted in Books, Fundamentalism | 13 Comments »

Scholarly dating of Daniel to After the ‘Prophecies’ were ‘Fulfilled’

Posted by NT Wrong on November 12, 2008

Most scholars of the Book of Daniel conclude that so-called ‘prophecies’ were only produced ‘after the fact’ or ex eventu. This is a position reached by first examining the historical, theological and literary nature of the Book of Daniel. In other words, it is a conclusion, not an assumption.

This conclusion often annoys those who place a lot of stock in ‘fulfilled biblical prophecy’ as a proof of the ‘inspiration’ of the Bible. So, you often see them accuse the scholar of basing their conclusion — not on the facts, as is the case — but on some ‘bias’ against prophecy itself. For instance, see this recent comment by Christian fundamentalist, Bob Burns, on a publicly accessible discussion group:

“The practice of late-dating the books of the Bible can be seen as a position of faith on the part of those scholars who do so, though they will never admit it.”
Bob Burns

Not surprisingly, Bob Burns fails to actually cite any scholars who he thinks carry out such an approach. So it seems that Bob’s accusation of bias is nothing more than.. his own bias.

But let’s do what Bob didn’t do, and actually examine the method of perhaps the major living critical scholar on the Book of Daniel today, John J. Collins. John Collins makes it explicit that the method he follows is precisely the opposite of that described in Bob’s empty and unsupported accusation. Collins’ finding that the Book of Daniel is to be dated to ca. 165 BC is the result of his prior research. It is not an assumption before research begins. That is, the finding that the Book of Daniel’s prophecies were written ‘after the fact’ is the conclusion from Collins’ examination of the Book of Daniel’s historical, theological, literary evidence, along with its failed (and therefore future) prophecies in Dan 11.40-45. The conclusion that Daniel’s prophecies were written after the fact is not an a priori claim, but one that results from a prior, careful examination of the Book itself.

Collins summarizes his method here — which contradicts Bob Burns’ baseless claim:

“The issue is not whether a divinely inspired prophet could have foretold the events which took place under Antiochus Epiphanes 400 years before. The question is whether this possibility carries any probability: is it the most satisfactory way to explain what we find in Daniel? Modern critical scholarship has held that it is not.”
– John J. Collins, Daniel, First Maccabees, Second Maccabee, with an Excursus on the Apocalyptic Genre (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1981): 11-12

So when we leave aside these unfounded accusations, and look at the actual method of a scholar of the Book of Daniel, we find that the dating of Daniel to the time after the so-called ‘prophecies’ were ‘fulfilled’ is not based on any bias against prophecy, but is argued methodologically from evidence to conclusion.

I doubt that any Daniel scholar argues from any simple a priori bias against predictive prophecy. The basis for dating Daniel would almost always include arguments from Daniel’s historical, lingustic and theological context, and/or arguments from the study of comparative prophecy. These empirical foundations for dating Daniel — whether considered correct or not — should not be misrepresented as a priori presupposition.

Posted in Fundamentalism, Prophets | 21 Comments »

Evangelical Christian Pop Culture: An Interview with Daniel Radosh of Rapture Ready Fame

Posted by NT Wrong on November 12, 2008

Mp3 here (57:43). The interview is with Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity. Radosh is fun. The interview only starts at 11:00 minutes.

Book reviews here and here.

Posted in Fundamentalism | Comments Off on Evangelical Christian Pop Culture: An Interview with Daniel Radosh of Rapture Ready Fame

More Heresy Hunting

Posted by NT Wrong on November 8, 2008

servetusTony Burke’s ‘Heresy Hunting in the New Millennium’, on the Aug 2008 SBL Forum, has certainly lit a fire under the Defenders of Orthodoxy. And you thought it was only the Heretics that got burnt at the stake!

In the November 2008 SBL Forum, Darrell L. Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary has written what on the face of it appears to be a point-by-point rejoinder to Burke. Yes, I said “on the face of it”, because — while Darrell Bock was only one of the modern ‘heresy hunters’ discussed by Tony Burke (along with Ben Witherington, Timothy Paul Jones, J. Ed Komoszewski, Philip Jenkins, Stanley Porter, Gordon L. Heath, Craig Evans, and Bishop N.T. Wright) — Bock replies to every point made only in respect of himself. That is, even when Burke’s point was about completely different scholars, Bock only adduces evidence from his own books in reply. Bock goes so far as to pronounce that Tony Burke’s point is simply “wrong” (which is the entire content of Bock’s first sentence of rejoinder) based only on his own books — even when the point concerned completely different scholars. So, what at first glance appears to be a point-by-point rejoinder is in fact a rather strange claim of “not me!”

Yet where Darrell Bock does actually recognize that Tony Burke’s points concern quite different writings by quite different scholars, he tends to agree with Tony Burke! As the only example where Bock discusses one of the other alleged ‘heresy hunters’ (Ben Witherington), Bock agrees that Ben Witherington does in fact go “over the line” in impugning the motives of Christian Apocrypha scholars, and that Witherington is “condescending” and “judgmental”. This doesn’t stop Darrell Bock from going on, in the very next sentence, to make the same insinuation about their motives, however. After all, why waste a chance to make an apologetic point against Christian Apocrypha scholars?

So, it’s a disappointing (non-)response — failing to address the specific charges levelled by Tony Burke, missing the point by limiting himself to a defence of his own books. It doesn’t matter that this is what Darrell Bock announces he will do, because in pursuing such an inappropriate method, his attempted response simply fails to address the specific points made in Tony Burke’s original article.

See now: Tony Burke’s Secret Scriptures Revealed

Posted in Academia, Early Christian literature, Fundamentalism | 19 Comments »