Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The End of Biblical Studies by Hector Avalos

This is a book written by a noted biblical scholar who, unlike almost all of his colleagues, argues that biblical studies as we know them today should come to an end, and the purpose of all biblical scholars moving forward should be to eliminate the influence of the Bible on the modern world. It is a text, Avalos argues, that has no relevance to modern society. The ancient civilization that produced the Bible held beliefs about the origin, nature, and purpose of the world and the human race that are contrary to the views of modern society. And the scholars and institutions that continue to study and support the study of the Bible do so more out of a sense of self-preservation than for any real benefit to the human race. In translating and re-translating the ancient texts, in writing and publishing their papers on newer and more socially-minded interpretations, in attending their conferences and writing their books, Avalos says, they are doing little more than creating their own Sudoku puzzles to solve.

I think my favorite part of the book was where Avalos examines the often fruitless quest for the Bible’s original text—the first draft written down by a human, supposedly from the very lips of God. Contrary to popular Christian belief, such a book does not exist—never did. “The Bible” is, of course, a collection of dozens of different books, written by scores of people over a few thousand years, and which of those books are included and which aren’t has been disputed by different denominations throughout history and is still disputed today. The oldest existing complete copy of the Bible is only about a thousand years old. What “the Bible” looked like before that is really anybody’s guess.

And that’s all before we take into account the Bible’s complicated translation history. Get this. The oldest existing texts of the Old Testament books are written in Hebrew (the most authoritative version comprising something called the Masoretic Text), and scholars know that it was then translated into Greek, then Latin, then English and all the other languages. The oldest New Testament books are written in Greek, and when they refer to Old Testament passages, as Jesus himself does a number of times, the reference is to the Greek version of the Old Testament, an accepted translation of the “original” Hebrew. This is often a problem, as Avalos explains:

The privileging of the Masoretic Text is somewhat of an embarrassment to those self-described Christian fundamentalists who otherwise extol it. It has long been known that Jesus and the other New Testament authors did not quote the Masoretic Text or even the pre-Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. Instead, Jesus and New Testament authors routinely quote the Greek translation, even when it disagrees with the Masoretic Text.

Every translation introduces changes into the text. That’s the nature of translation. So if the original Old Testament was written in Hebrew (or perhaps some earlier language), why would Jesus (who, as God, should obviously know better) quote an inexact Greek translation of his own words? And, more importantly, we should realize that:

Even the oldest Greek manuscripts of Jesus’ words are translations because Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic.

That’s right. If he existed at all as a flesh and blood person in that part of the world at that time, he would have to speak in Aramaic in order to be understood by those around him. This means that even the “original” Greek version of the New Testament contains Jesus’ words in translation. We actually have no written record of Jesus’ exact words. The very source on which we have based our English translation is, in fact, a translation—and maybe a translation of a translation. How are we to know?

Another interesting section is when Avalos lists several famous Bible verses in the New Testament—verses upon which key doctrinal points are based—which are, by the best understanding of scholars, later additions to the books that comprise the New Testament. In other words, they are not original; we have versions of the New Testament books in question from earlier in history without these verses included. Among the verses so added later are:

Mark 16:9-20, which provides witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus:

After all, if Mark 16:8 ends with verse 8, then there is no story of anyone actually seeing or speaking with a resurrected Jesus. All we have is a statement that he is risen and a promise that he will appear. But it ends with nothing more than a group of women in fear. Thus, what is usually regarded as the earliest Christian gospel would not have much of a resurrection story—the door is left open for those who argue that the resurrection was not part of the earliest recorded Christian tradition.

John 7:53-8:11, which is used to preach against the death penalty:

One centers on John 8:7, where Jesus declared, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” He was responding to a call to stone to death a woman caught in adultery.

For some Christians this is a primary text to support the abolition of the death penalty. In the Hebrew Bible the death penalty was permissible if at least two witnesses were found to testify against a person in the commission of a capital sin (Deuteronomy 17:6-7). In this passage, however, Jesus changes the entire set of rules. Instead of making a minimum number of witnesses a requirement to execute the death penalty, Jesus requires the sinlessness of any executioner. Since no one is without sin, then no one would be qualified to carry out the death penalty. The death penalty consequently would be abolished altogether.

1 John 5:7-8, which explicitly describes the Trinity:

The King James Version reads in verse 7: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” This, of course, offers strong support for the doctrine of the Trinity. It is, in fact, the only text that is so explicit about a doctrine that is otherwise difficult to find in the New Testament.

Another interesting section is Avalos’ examination of biblical literary criticism. As part of that discussion he outlines the sometimes conflicting disciplines of ethics and aesthetics.

The role of ethics in evaluating artistic merit has been the subject of considerable discussion. Briefly, two polar positions may be identified. The “autonomist” position, advocated by scholars such as Clive Bell and Daniel Jacobson, views aesthetic value as independent of the moral content of any artistic depiction, textual or audiovisual. By this standard, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment at the Sistine Chapel, which includes scenes of people being tortured, is beautiful regardless of the content.

On the other pole, the “ethicist” position, associated with scholars such as Berys Gaut, sees ethics as inextricably bound with artistic evaluations. As Gaut phrases it: “The ethicist principle is a pro tanto one: it holds that a work is aesthetically meritorious (or defective) insofar as it manifests ethically admirable (or reprehensible) attitudes.” While some autonomists may object that ethical judgments cannot be imposed on fictional characters that do not exist, Gaut argues that what is being judged is a work’s attitude toward the actions of those characters.

I’m sure these are two very interesting poles to observe in the realm of biblical literary criticism. In my own literary realm, I’d have to say I’m definitely more of an autonomist.

One of the great things about a book like this is that you’re bound to stumble across something that gives you a new perspective on things. As an example, the word “covenant” is tossed around a lot in the Bible and in the religions that follow it, and to my modern, uninitiated ears, it’s usually interpreted as some kind of promise—a contract, maybe—between God and his followers, to offer them his special protection in return for their worship and loyalty. Well, according to Avalos, covenants have another historical context that isn’t stressed by many Bible scholars today.

Covenants were not as benign as Eichrodt would have them. Covenants were instruments of imperialism and slavery—Yahweh was the slavemaster and Israel was his slave. As is the case with any slave, Yahweh rewarded his subjects for obedience and punished them mercilessly for disobedience. He required genital mutilation, called circumcision, of all his slaves. Far from providing a sense of security, the covenant caused the Israelites to dread the punishment that followed transgressions against it. Only one slavemaster was allowed, and a slave risked serious harm if he did not remain faithful to the one slavemaster.

Go back and read some Bible passages with that context in mind. Passages like Exodus 20:1-6 and Deuteronomy 28:15-46. Puts a whole new perspective on things, doesn’t it?

But Avalos’ main point, which he highlights throughout this work, is that the Bible grows less and less relevant in our modern world with every passing day, despite the efforts of a class of biblical scholars who seem focused on propping the Bible up as something that should continued to be studied and revered—and this in the face of an increasingly skeptical and less adoring student population. In one example, Avalos cites:

Robert E. Mansbach, the Wolford Professor of Religion at Hartwick College and a Lutheran minister, notes that his courses are populated by students with a variety of views, ranging from atheism to Christianity and Judaism. Mansbach hopes that students will retain the following five items after taking courses in biblical studies:

(1) see historical-critical problems as important, but important always within the framework of Judeo-Christian communities which produced the scriptures;
(2) understand that, even if one is an atheist, this does not change the way in which scripture-engendering communities understood themselves over time, i.e., as a people confronted, freed and blessed by God in history;
(3) understand that, even if one is an atheist, these communities grew to affirm the uniqueness and universality of Yahweh’s revelations (e.g., “I am Yahweh…and there is no other,” or “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”);
(4) know that these communities at their best saw themselves in tension with cultures calling for other, destructive allegiances; and
(5) have a sense that these communities, at their best, saw God’s empowering love and leveling justice as their historical mandate.

He adds: “Finally, in every effective method available, I would hope to build with the class a community in which they might experience a secular shadow or parallel of Christian acceptance, faith, loving empowerment, and leveling justice.”

If you’re one of those people who believe that any sense of “Christian acceptance” and “leveling justice” Christianity enjoys today arose strictly from secular influences dragging it kicking and screaming into the modern world, then you’ll appreciate Avalos’ comments on all this navel gazing.

Mansbach, like most other advocates of the academic study of the Bible, does not want to study the Bible or religion in order to examine negative or injurious aspects of either religion or the Bible. Some of the items Mansbach lists clearly assume that biblical religions have brought only good things that can be imitated even by secular people (e.g., “Christian acceptance…loving empowerment”). Mansbach’s fourth item sees biblical communities in tension with cultures that have “destructive allegiances,” which implies that biblical religions advocated no destructive allegiances. Why not reverse this statement and say that we would want students to learn that nonbiblical cultures were often in tension with biblical cultures who called for “destructive allegiances”?

One of the fascinating reasons Avalos gives for this desire to preserve biblical studies is the self-induced notion among some that scholars are modern-day heroes—heroes in the classical sense.

Any careful study of journal articles reveals that they have a familiar pattern found in many ancient heroic legends. Consider the legend of the Twelve Labors of Herakles, where Herakles (aka Hercules) finds ingenious solutions to problems that had defeated human beings. In more schematic form, in the legends of Herakles we often see: (1) a problem presented; (2) a review of how the problem had defeated human beings before him; (3) Herakles’ specific and ingenious solution to the problem; and (4) a triumphant conclusion.

If we look at a typical journal article in biblical studies, we see that it begins with a statement of a problem or challenge. Following this is a review of past research, which usually shows that the problem has not been completely solved by past scholars. This section is then followed by the author’s proposal to solve the problem. Finally, a conclusion is announced, and usually the author presents himself as triumphant or as “contributing” something new.

And why would these scholars seek to paint themselves as heroes?

To some extent, such articles must be heroic narratives because they are partly generated by the demand for “excellence” and competition for the precious few jobs available in biblical studies. The articles are the equivalent of the Herculean tasks given to scholars by the academy.

And it is this quest for heroics—for demonstrating the value of the Bible to our modern society—which has, in fact, permeated all layers of our society. The question of the Bible’s validity is rarely questioned openly, and as a result so much of our pop culture has adopted its sensibilities and lessons. Near the end of his book, Avalos focuses on how this adoption occurs and recurs to this day, citing numerous examples in the mass media of the favorable treatment of religion and religious themes.

One case in point is ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974), in which a little mouse named Albert is portrayed as a thorough rationalist and skeptic with regard to the existence of Santa Claus. Eventually, Albert’s father convinces Albert to stop relying only on his physical senses and learn to understand with the heart. So Albert believes in Santa Claus again. Though overt denominational views may have declined in mainstream television, the affirmation of the value of faith and religion is still there.

But even this does not strictly come from the Bible. As Avalos argues, so much of what we today think of as “the Bible” is, in fact, a modern construct—a collection of human thought and understanding that our culture has pinned on the Bible but which has little relationship to it. Some liberal believers know this, but worry about the consequences of abandoning the Bible altogether.

Witness the plea of William G. Dever:

“If its professional custodians no longer take the Bible seriously, at least as the foundation of our Western cultural tradition, much less a basis for private and public morality, where does that leave us? If we simply jettison the Bible as so much excess baggage in the brave new postmodern world, what shall we put in its place?”

A question Avalos addresses head on.

But why do we need to put anything in the Bible’s place? Why do we need an ancient book that endorses everything from genocide to slavery to be a prime authority of our public or private morality? Why do we need any ancient test at all, regardless of what morality it espouses? “The Bible” is mostly a construct of the last two thousand years of human history. Modern human beings have existed for tens of thousands of years without the Bible, and they don’t seem to have been the worse for it. There are modern secularized societies in Europe that seem to get along just fine without the Bible.


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