Review of Chapter 4 of The End of Christianity

In chapter 4 of The End of Christianity, Hector Avalos argues that we should end biblical studies as we know them. He has two main points: (1) the Bible is the product of a culture whose values and beliefs are no longer relevant to even most Christians and Jews; and (2) despite this irrelevance, the profession of biblical studies still centers on maintaining the illusion of relevance. He desires that we treat the Bible as having no more importance in our lives than other works of literature.

His first point is that translations of the Bible sometimes distort the original language to make the text seem more relevant than it should be. He offers three examples. The first example is Deuteronomy 32:8-9: “When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided up humankind, he set the boundaries of the peoples, according to the number of the heavenly assembly. For the Lord’s allotment is his people, Jacob is his special possession” (NET). Avalos contends that the Most High (Elyon) is a separate deity than Yahweh (the Lord) because this is the case in some surrounding cultures. He also states that the phrase “the heavenly assembly” (sons of El) refers to other gods. He charges some translators with covering up the polytheism implied by the passage to make the passage more relevant to today’s monotheistic Jews and Christians. While the religious beliefs of other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures may be of interest, it is best to interpret Deuteronomy 32:8-9 in light of ancient Israelite writings. Quite a few biblical verses equate Yahweh with Elyon (translations from the NET):

  • Genesis 14:22: But Abram replied to the king of Sodom, “I raise my hand to the Lord [Yahweh], the Most High God [Elyon], Creator of heaven and earth.”
  • 2 Samuel 22:14: The Lord [Yahweh] thundered from the sky; the sovereign One [Elyon] shouted loudly.
  • Psalm 21:7: For the king trusts in the Lord [Yahweh], and because of the sovereign Lord’s [Elyon’s] faithfulness he is not upended.
  • Psalm 83:18: Then they will know that you alone are the Lord [Yahweh], the sovereign king [Elyon] over all the earth.
  • Psalm 91:9: For you have taken refuge in the Lord [Yahweh], my shelter, the sovereign One [Elyon].
  • Psalm 92:1: It is fitting to thank the Lord [Yahweh], and to sing praises to your name, O sovereign One [Elyon]!

But what about the sons of El? The meaning of the term is debated, but, as Michael S. Heiser argues, the phrase probably refers to the divine council and does not imply polytheism.

The second example is Matthew 19:12 (NET): “For there are some eunuchs who were that way from birth, and some who were made eunuchs by others, and some who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who is able to accept this should accept it.” Some translations, such as the CEV (“Some people are unable to marry because of birth defects or because of what someone has done to their bodies. Others stay single for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Anyone who can accept this teaching should do so.”), use less graphic language. However, few have taken the verse to literally mean that one should undergo castration. While the CEV may not be the most literal of translations it may still convey the import of the passage.

The third example refers to attempts by some, such as Irvin J. Borowsky, to sanitize allegedly anti-Semitic passages from the Bible. While it is true that some have used the Bible to stoke anti-Semitism, I am unaware of any passage that, when understood in its original context, promotes the persecution of Jews. We must keep in mind that nearly every book of the Bible was written by a Jew. What we witness is intra-Jewish polemic and not non-Jews stoking hatred of Jews.

While no translation is perfect, the examples Avalos gives are not very convincing in supporting the notion that some translators are purposely coming out with translations to make the Bible more relevant. At least in the English-speaking world, a person can easily compare numerous translations to each other and read dozens of scholarly commentaries.

The second point made by Avalos concerns textual criticism: the discipline that examines the manuscript evidence and reconstructs the original text. He asserts that this discipline leads to the conclusion that we cannot reconstruct the original text of the New Testament. But this is only true in the sense that we cannot have absolute certainty about the wording of every last Greek word in the New Testament. By my count, 98.22% of the words in the Greek New Testament are known with certainty according to the United Bible Societies’ A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd Edition). Avalos also offers no reason why this discipline should end.

Avalos’ third point is about biblical archeology. He contends that there is little archeological support for many of the Old Testament accounts. An opposing position can be found in Kenneth Kitchen’s book On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Avalos goes into no real detail here. It seems he only wants archeology to end in the sense that we should give up on thinking it will illuminate biblical history.

The fourth section of the chapter focuses on the historical Jesus as depicted by the Jesus Seminar. While the Jesus Seminar is deserving of criticism I think some of Avalos’ criticisms are unfair. First, the historian deals in probabilities and not certainties (the same could be said for other fields too). When Avalos criticizes the criterion of multiple independent attestation he does so by pointing out that this does not guarantee that the tradition in question goes back to the historical Jesus. But the historian merely claims that it increases the probability that the tradition goes back to the historical Jesus. Second, Avalos says that the existence of non-canonical Gospels means we cannot privilege the canonical Gospels as the earliest or best sources for the historical Jesus. While it is true that we cannot hold this position merely because Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are in the canon, most scholars do hold that the canonical Gospels are the earliest and best sources for the historical Jesus on normal historical grounds. Third, Avalos seems to denigrate history in general, for he states that, even if we uncovered lots of new contemporary material about Jesus, we would still not know much about Jesus because we could not verify the information in (other?) contemporary accounts. This sort of hyper-skepticism towards Christian writings is unwarranted. His remarks place him on the outskirts of historical Jesus studies.

The fifth section concerns literary criticism: studying the Bible as a piece of literature. In this section Avalos seems to be complaining for the sake of complaining: how dare we study the Bible in so much depth. Whether Avalos likes it or not, the fact is that the Bible is extremely important in the lives of billions of people and it does have practical relevance to those lives. As is typical of so-called new atheists, he wants to hold that the Bible has led people to commit violent acts while ignoring any good that has come from people following the Bible. This is all the more strange since Avalos is a moral relativist. It’s difficult to take Avalos’ moralizing seriously when he admits that morality is futile to begin with (the end of Avalos’ moralizing is something I could support).

The final section is entitled biblical theology but focuses mainly on the re-contextualization of texts by faith communities. I have no comments for this section.

In conclusion, Avalos states that we should re-define biblical studies so that it is tasked with eliminating completely the influence of the Bible in the modern world. In other words, no sacred text should be an authority for modern human existence. I would contend that biblical studies should be about illuminating the meaning of and history concerning the Bible. While individual scholars may have religious or atheistic agendas they should still be able to reach some agreement on biblical matters. The last thing we need is a top-down authoritarian approach to education. Let the student make up his own mind in light of the evidence.

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