Friday, July 11, 2008

"How Reliable Is Exodus?"

"How Reliable Is Exodus?" (PDF)

Hinman on Avalos

Joe Hinman on Hector Avalos.

Debunking Dr. Avalos

Apostate Hector Avalos has responded to something Peter and I said about the legend of Sargon:

A few preliminary definitions are in order:

When I say the “legend” of Sargon, I’m not rendering a value judgment on the historicity, or lack thereof, of these traditions, but simply using a conventional scholarly designation for these traditions.

In addition, the point at issue is not all traditions associated with the Sargon legend, but rather, the claim that a section of Exod 2 is literarily dependent on parallel tradition in the Sargon legend.

“Hector Avalos wrote: Unfortunately, I don’t see any evidence that the authors of Triablogue are familiar with cuneiform literature, or can verify any information for themselves outside of secondary sources”

By leading with this statement, Avalos immediately backs himself into a dilemma. Who is the intended audience for his response? The immediate audience for his response are readers of DC. He apparently emailed his response to John Loftus, who posted his response with his permission.

Now, the implication of his statement is to disqualify any reader who doesn’t know cuneiform. If you don’t know cuneiform, then you’re in no position to verify secondary sources regarding the Sargon legend.

But in that event, few, if any readers of DC can verify the claims of Avalos. Therefore, his response is self-refuting.

If he’s going to disqualify anyone who doesn’t know cuneiform, then that disqualifies anyone reading his own response—unless the reader happens to know cuneiform. How many readers of DC know cuneiform?

Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to address his response directly to Hoffmeier? Why doesn’t he email Hoffmeier?

If, on the other hand, he grants that a nonspecialist is competent to register the force of whatver arguments which Avalos has marshaled in his response to Peter and me, then—by the same token—a nonspecialist is equally competent to register the force of whatever arguments were marshaled by Hoffmeier, et al.

And since he brings it up, it’s not as if Avalos generally confines himself to his field of expertise. For example, he’s a very vocal and public opponent of Intelligent Design theory. But that lies far outside his field of expertise. He also had a formal debate with William Lane Craig on the Resurrection. Yet that is Craig’s specialty.

“Such as those found in Hoffmeier, Hess, and other conservative scholars. I know the work of these conservative scholars well.”

This statement is misleading because you don’t have to be a conservative scholar to be sceptical about the literary dependence of Exod 2 on the legend of Sargon. For example, Nahum Sarna is hardly a “conservative” scholar as Avalos defines the term (a la Hoffmeier, Hess), yet this is what Sarna has to say in his commentary:

“A close examination of the account of the birth of Moses clearly demonstrates striking differences that distinguish it from the foregoing examples. Other than the life-threatening exposure of the infant, all the significant details of the Torah’s narrative are antithetical to groups of people variously referred to…,” The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (JPS 1991), 266-67

He then flaunts his credentials. But there are some problems with that move:

i) That’s an argument from authority. Avalos is presenting himself as an expert witness. And the implication of this statement is that we should take his word for it, given his expertise.

But one problem with that claim is that, in this case, the argument from authority cuts both ways. Hoffmeier is also an expert witness.

If there were scholarly consensus on the relationship between Exod 2:1-10 and the legend of Sargon, then his appeal would carry a bit more weight—although that wouldn’t be a logically compelling argument.

But if the nonspecialist is dependent on the specialist for his information, and if one expert disagrees with another, then the argument from authority cancels out the testimony of Avalos as well as Hoffmeier.

“I see no reference yet to perhaps the most important study of the Sargon legend— Brian Lewis, The Sargon Legend: A Study of the Akkadian Text and The Tale of the Hero Who Was Exposed at Birth (American Schools of Oriental Research: Cambridge, MA, 1980).”

Why would Avalos refer the readers of DC to the monograph by Brian Lewis? Isn’t that a secondary source? But unless the reader of DC knows his way around cuneiform, then he’s in no position to verify the claims of Lewis, right?

If, on the other, we should give heed to the claims of Lewis, then, by parity of reasoning, we should also give heed to the claims of Hoffmeier et al.

Incidentally, the monograph by Lewis was published back in 1980. The two scholars I cited (Hoffmeier, Longman) published their own monographs several years later. So it’s not as if they were unable to take Lewis into account.

Keep in mind that Avalos has set the bar very high for his own performance. If, on the one hand, he’s an expert while, on the other hand, Peter and I labor under the dual handicap of being both mistaken and incompetent, then it should be a piece of cake for Avalos to prove us wrong.

But if, after all is said and done, he fails to make his case, then that tells you how weak his position must be.

“Without the specifics of this linguistic evidence, this really does not mean very much.”

The specifics are supplied on pp138-40 of Hoffmeier’s Israel and Egypt, as well as the footnotes on pp157-58.

Remember, though, that Avalos told us he “knows the work of these conservatives scholars well”—referring to the work of Hoffmeier, among others.

So, if he knows the work of Hoffmeier well, then why doesn’t he know the specific linguistic evidence which Hoffmeier presents?

“In the case of the Moses story, there are no stories with parallels as close as that of the legend of Sargon. The story of Horus has been suggested, but the parallels are not very good.”

Notice that Avalos seems to be assuming the very point at issue. He seems to assume that Exod 2:1-10 must be indebted to some extraneous source, and it’s just a question of identifying the source.

Doesn’t that beg a key question? Where is the supporting argument for his “facile assumption?”

“In contrast, there are numerous more exact parallels with Mesopotamian literature. For example, the idea of handing over a foundling to a wet nurse who raises him until he is weaned finds a more exact legal parallel in the Sumerian-Akkadian lexical series known as ana ittishu, which was edited by B. Landsberger in Materialien zum sumerischen Lexicon I, p. 112, especially column iii.”

Well, there are several problems with this example:

i) That isn’t the “idea” which Evan was talking about. Evan was talking about section in Exod 2 where the Mosaic infant is put in a waterproof basket and set adrift on the Nile.

So this example is irrelevant to the point at issue.

ii) Notice the genre in which the parallel occurs. Avalos refers us to a legal text. But do case laws deal with hypothetical situations (“legends”) which never occur? Or do case laws deal with real life situations?

How would that parallel undermine the historicity of Exod 2 at this juncture? Wouldn’t the case law be based on real world events?

If so, foundlings aren’t limited to Mesopotamia, are they? Egypt would have its share of foundlings as well, would it not? And if a foundling is to survive, then it will need a wet-nurse.

Isn’t that the purpose of the law? And isn’t the rationale for the legal parallel applicable to comparable situations beyond the borders of Mesopotamia?

So how did Avalos establish that I committed a factual error? He didn’t.

Apparently, he’s making the facile assumption that if the situation of Exod 2:7-9 is parallel to comparable situation in Sumerian case law, then Exod 2:7-9 never happened. But how in the world does that follow?

“Actually, we have more for Sargon.”

Avalos is trying to disprove my position through selectively quoting what I said. And that, in turn, leads him to equivocate.

Did I deny that we have a lot of evidence for the existence of Sargon? No. Indeed, I repeatedly affirmed that fact.

But what I also said, more than once, is that we need to distinguish between general evidence for the historicity of Sargon, and specific evidence that the section of Exod 2 under dispute is indebted to the legend of Sargon.

Avalos is attacking a straw man. And he’s doing so to deflect attention away from the actual point at issue.

So how did Avalos establish that I committed a factual error? He didn’t.

“We also can see the potential development of some motifs rather early…This shows that the motif of Sargon being beloved of Ishtar, is already present hundreds of years before the Neo-Assyrian texts which contain the fuller account of the Legend of Sargon.”

Several problems with this move:

i) The issue is not whether an extant source may preserve an earlier motif. No doubt there are many such cases.

ii) But if you’re going to assert literary dependence, then you need concrete evidence commensurate with the specificity of the claim. The generic possibility that a given motif may antedate your extant sources doesn’t justify a claim of literary dependence. That would be a “facile assumption.”

iii) And not only do you need concrete evidence, but you need evidence specific to the claim. The fact that certain motifs in the fully-developed legend antedate its complete development doesn’t justify the claim that a particular motif antedates the fully-developed legend—absent specific evidence to that effect. That would be a “facile assumption.”

iv) Indeed, to illustrate his contention, Avalos had to document his example. If he had been unable to document the prior existence of this particular motif, then his claim would have been unwarranted. So he’s proving my point rather than his.

v) Finally, the very admission, on his part, that the legend of Sargon underwent internal development means that some motifs in later sources do not go back to earlier sources. Or if they do antedate the extant source, some motifs are still later than others.

Hence, you can’t simply posit literary dependence. You can’t take the fully-developed legend as your point of reference and simply extrapolate from that source to earlier stages of the legend. That would be a “facile assumption.”

So how did Avalos establish that I committed a factual error? He didn’t.

“We have nothing from Moses’ supposed lifetime that mentions him or any of his features. Not even close.”

Actually, we do have something from Moses’ supposed lifetime that mentions him and his features. We have Exodus-Deuteronomy. Those books contain many autobiographical references to Moses.

Of course, Avalos is a liberal, so he denies the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. But his opinion doesn’t prove me wrong. It’s not as if conservative scholars haven’t defended the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.

“Indeed, where do we have anything similar about Moses hundreds of years before the oldest Exodus manuscripts?”

That’s rather silly. Suppose I have a modern edition of Beza’s Life of Calvin. And suppose I have a first edition of Dwight Eisenhower’s autobiography. By Avalos’ logic, this creates the presumption that Eisenhower antedates Calvin.

Likewise, until the discovery of the DDS, our earliest OT Hebrew MSS were medieval MSS. By contrast, our earliest NT Greek MSS antedated the Hebrew MSS by centuries. By Avalos’ logic, this creates the presumption that the NT antedates the OT.

This is what happens when you disregard the elementary distinction between the Urtext and a copy of the Urtext.

Now, in the case of Scripture, we have various lines of evidence that the Bible antedates our MS evidence. For example, literary allusions imply literary dependence. If the NT cites, quotes, or alludes to the OT, then that would be solid evidence for literary dependence of the NT on the OT—even if our extant NT MSS antedated our OT MSS.

So how did Avalos establish that I committed a factual error? He didn’t.

I’d also reiterate, as I already pointed out to Evan, if you’re going to cast doubt on whether our extant MSS of Exodus are faithful to the Urtext of Exodus, then that undermines any claim that Exod 2 is indebted to the legend of Sargon. For even if Exod 2, in our extant MSS, were indebted to the legend of Sargon because of a scribal interpolation, then the Urtextual Exod 2 was not indebted to the legend of Sargon.

“We can talk all day long about textual or literary criticism supposedly helps us reach earlier or to ‘original’ compositions, but I think I have addressed this issue in great detail in The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Press, 2007), pp. 65-108.”

Why does Avalos refer the reader to his book? Isn’t that a secondary source? Is Avalos tacitly admitting that a nonspecialist is competent to evaluate the arguments of a specialist?

Incidentally, since Avalos is fond of flaunting his credentials, does he also think that we should judge a book by its publisher? Hoffmeier’s monograph was published by Oxford University Press. The book by Avalos was published by Prometheus Press. Which would you rather see on your resume?

“Textual criticism won’t help you much here in proving that Exodus 1-2 is written before the Sargon legend.”

i) Did we say that textual criticism proves the literary priority of Exod 1-2? No. And Avalos is illicitly shifting the burden of proof.

The point, rather, is that if you’re going to claim the literary priority of the Sargon legend to Exod 2, then you need to furnish specific, concrete evidence to substantiate your claim.

ii) Moreover, literary priority doesn’t establish that a later document is indebted to an earlier document. That’s only a bare, necessary condition.

The Tale of Genii is later than Isaiah. That doesn’t mean the Tale of Genii is indebted to Isaiah.

He then quotes Lewis: “It would appear more likely that the Vorlage of the Moses story be sought in the direction of Mesopotamia or Western Asia.”

Several problems:

i) He doesn’t quote the supporting arguments of Lewis.

ii) Why should I be more impressed by the scholarly opinion of Lewis than the contrary opinion of other scholars? Once again, the argument from authority is a double-bladed sword.

iii) And which is it? Mesopotamia or Western Asia?

“Moreover, textual criticism and literary criticism would still favor the Sargon legends being earlier compositions…We have four major manuscripts for the Legend of Sargon, and so we can do textual criticism.”

i) But Avalos just told us that textual criticism can’t help us to reach earlier or original compositions. In that event, how can he use textual criticism to establish the literary dependence of Exod 2 on the legend of Sargon? He’s dynamited his own appeal.

“Motifs and other elements found in earlier omens, and inscriptions related to Sargon can help us conduct much better literary analysis than is possible for Moses.”

Avalos is blurring the distinction between the historical Sargon and the literary Sargon—something he does throughout his response. But if Exodus-Deuteronomy is autobiographical, then we’d scarcely expect to find sources about the life of Moses which antedate the life of Moses. Exodus-Deuteronomy would be our earliest source of information about Moses because it was written by Moses. Autobiographies don’t antedate their authors.

By contrast, there are obviously sources of information on Sargon which antedate the legend of Sargon since the historical Sargon antedates the literary Sargon.

“In addition, we now have a fragment of the Gilgamesh epic from Palestine, and so we know that this story was there. In contrast, we don’t have any biblical texts in Mesopotamian dating from the time of the Gilgamesh epic.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh is a red herring. We’re not debating the literary dependence (or not) of Gen 6-9 on the Epic of Gilgamesh.

(Incidentally, notice that Avalos doesn’t give the date for this Palestinian fragment.)

It betrays the weakness of his case when Avalos has to pepper his response with decoys.

“We have mountains of Akkadian stories and others types of texts.”

Avalos is now trying to snow the reader with a lot of generic evidence that’s absolutely irrelevant to the specific evidence he would need to establish a specific claim. More decoys to throw us off the scent.

“So, the OVERWHELMING weight of the evidence suggests that, if there were any copying, the Hebrews copied from earlier Mesopotamian literature, and not the other way around.”

Notice how he couches his statement in hypothetical terms: “If there were any copying...”

So, after all is said and done; after all the chest-thumping about his CV; after every irrelevant parallel he could cobble together, he hasn’t actually moved the argument a single inch in establishing that Exod 2 was copied from the legend of Sargon. He gives the reader a hypothetical in lieu of any hard evidence.

“Good history begins with the extant sources. The Sargon legend is in actual manuscripts from the seventh century BCE. We can trace crucial elements of this legend hundreds (or even thousands) of years before that.”

i) Notice the blatant equivocation. In the issue at hand, the crucial element would be a parallel between Exod 2:3 and the legend of Sargon.

Has Avalos done the slightest thing to show that this crucial element antedates our 7C BC MSS by hundreds or even thousands of years? No. Not at all.

ii) And suppose, for the sake of argument, that he did succeed. Would that prove that Exod 2:3 copied the legend of Sargon? Would that prove that Exod 2:3 is unhistorical?

None of the above. Only if you operate with the “facile assumption” that something like Exod 2:3 couldn’t happen in real life would you jump to the conclusion the Exod 2:3 a legendary statement, indebted to another legendary statement.

Where is the supporting argument for this “facile assumption”? None is forthcoming from Avalos.

“The Moses story appears in manuscripts no earlier than the 2nd-3rd centuries BCE. We have NOTHING about Moses before this. Any textual or literary criticism we can apply will still result in Sargon stories being attested far longer and better than those of Moses.”

This is just a rehash of the fallacious arguments he’s been dishing out all along. Didn’t take long for Avalos to shoot his wad.

“1. How do you explain the parallels between the Moses story and the Sumerian ana ittishu legal directives?”

Asked and answered (see above).

“2. What pattern of parallels from an Egyptian story is closer than the one from Sargon for the Moses story?”

i) Observe the “facile assumption” underlying the question. It’s not as if Exod 2 requires a literary parallel of any kind, whether Egyptian or Mesopotamian.

It’s only if you assume, a priori, that events like this don’t happen that you automatically treat this account as a literary fiction.

ii) As a matter of fact, there is a partial parallel. That’s in Genesis. The wording of 2:3 is, in part, a literary allusion to the flood account. Moses wants to remind the reader of another instance of God’s providence.

“Could you provide ONE text critical detail that would help you date the Moses story before the Sargon story.”

Once again, Avalos is illicitly shifting the burden of proof. The onus is not on me to disprove literary dependence.

“4. Are you able to read: A. Assyro-Babylonian; B. Hebrew?”

Are the readers of DC able to read Assyro-Babylonian or Hebrew? If not, who were you writing for?

In sum, his response is riddled with decoys, equivocations, sophistries, and self-contradictions. The fact that a specialist did this badly when trying to rebut a nonspecialist like Peter or me shows how weak his case really is.

An Unnecessary Response Necessitated By Willful Ignorance

Apparently, Loftus finally got an expert to write something for his blog entry. Now the atheists think that because fifteen minutes have passed with no response from Triablogue, they’ve won. Since atheists cannot connect any logical dots and need everything spelled out for them, this post has become necessary. It is also necessary to practically re-quote everything Steve wrote in his original post, but since atheists don’t follow links…

First, what was Steve’s argument regarding Sargon?

1.Evan disregards the intertextual parallels between Noah and Moses: both are placed in an “ark” (tebah) waterproofed with bitumen.

2.”While certainly a folklore theme, the practice of placing a child in the river may have been a widely practiced form of abandonment, similar to the more modern practice of leaving a child on the doorstep of a house,” T. Longman, Fictional Akkadian Autobiography, 56.

3.Apropos (2), both Egypt and Mesopotamia were riverine civilizations.

4.Papyrus was a natural, Egyptian building material for rafts (cf. Isa 18:1-2). Wood was costly.

5.Evan confuses the date of Sargon with the date of the legend.

“Although set in the life of King Sargon of Akkad (2371-2316BC), the surviving fragments of the tale are Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian in date (7C-6C BC)…A further problem for those wishing to find a correlation between the Sargon legend and the Moses birth story is, as noted above, that the earliest surviving copies of the Sargon text date from Neo-Assyrian or later times. This factor, along with others, suggests that the legend may have been recorded by (or for) the late 8C Assyrian king, Sargon II, who took the name of his great Akkadian forebear and identified himself with that monarch. This possibility diminishes the case for the Sargon legend influencing Exodus because if we allow that J or E (usually dated to the 10C and 8C respective) is the source behind Exodus 2:1-10, and follow the traditional dating for these sources, both would predate the reign of Sargon II (721-705),” J. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt, 136-37.

And that’s predicated on the late dating scheme of the Documentary Hypothesis. If we accept Mosaic authorship, the account antedates the legend of Sargon by many centuries.

6.”Exodus 2:3 contains the central elements of the Moses birth narrative that are so commonly compared with the Sargon legend. Yet we see [138-39] that this verse contains no less than six words used in Egypt during the New Kingdom…How is the presence of Egyptian terms in the narrative to be explained, especially if the motif was borrowed from Mesopotamia? This significant concentration of Egyptian terms militates against the Mesopotamian connection…Furthermore, it seems unlikely that a scribe during the late Judaean monarchy or the exilic period (or later) would have been familiar with these Egyptian terms,” Hoffmeier, ibid., 140.
So the core of the argument is:

1. There are parallelisms between Exodus and Genesis.

2. The commonality of placing infants in rivers is a more likely reason for the parallelism than having it copied from Sargon even if we discount 1.

3. The date of Sargon is after the date of Exodus given the J or E dating schemes (and Steve quotes Hoffmeier in support of this).

4. Exodus contains language that is consistent with New Kingdom Egyptian rather than Mesopotamian (which would be more likely if it were copied from Sargon).

Of these four main points, only point 3 has been attacked. Notice the importance in the argument: it’s not Steve’s first or second point. Even if Sargon was dated before Exodus, both points 1 and 2 would still stand. So all the work the atheists are engaged in is futile in the first place because even if they succeed in discounting 3, they’ve not proven their case.

I pointed this out to Evan repeatedly. The very first sentence (and the second one as well for continuity) of my first comment to him on Sargon was:

It's obvious Evan still hasn't gotten past the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Just because something happens after another thing doesn't imply that the second thing was based on the first thing or cause by the first thing.
Then, when Evan tried to keep the discussion sidetracked on the dating of Sargon and Exodus, I said:

No, that's not at all what the argument being advanced is. Firstly, you're still stuck in your post hoc mode. You really need to pay attention to what we're actually saying if you want to make a relevant comment.

1) The practice of abandoning unwanted babies in rivers predates both Exodus and Sargon, regardless of what dates you assign to either of them.

2) Therefore, the actual practice of putting children in baskets on the river is a much more likely source for having the same event in two different stories than having one story copied from another, especially given how Sargon getting put in a river is the ONLY link you've claimed between the legend of Sargon and Moses.

3) If the actual practice was going on, it would not be unlikely at all for both Sargon and Moses to have actually been put into a river at some point.

As you ought to be able to see from the above, this is true regardless of the dates assigned to the various texts.
All the italics were in the original, mind you. Evan should have been paying attention.

Once again, Evan tried to sidetrack from the issue, and I responded in my next comment:

You're still bound to your post hoc fallacy. You're still stuck thinking that because both talk about the same event then one had to be copied from the other.

Since you haven't paid any attention yet, I will repeat myself. The reason they both talk about the same event is because the event was fairly common in those times.


Will you PLEASE read that this time? Will you please get off your post hoc fallacy and interact with what's been said? Is that too much to ask?
Italics and bold were in the original. Evan did not read it and he did not interact with it.

So as you can see, my argument was consistently that Evan was committing a post hoc fallacy. Which is why I found it really funny that Loftus’s expert Avalos included me in his response.

The dating of Exodus and Sargon is irrelevant to my main argument. It’s only a tangential aspect that would provide more evidence, but the absence of which is not damaging to my position. So even if we grant Avalos’s claim that Exodus was written after Sargon this would not prove literary dependency.

Now if atheists really think that Evan’s getting the “upper hand” in the debate because he’s not answering something I’ve repeated multiple times, because he continually sidetracks, and because he thinks the date of Sargon and Exodus are the key aspect, then atheists are bigger fools than even I take them for.

But be that as it may, I can counter Avalos with the quotes Steve already provided from Hoffmeier. Now we have two experts disagreeing over a point that was not the main focus of Steve’s argument, and over a point that I’ve consistently pointed out is irrelevant to the main argument.

If that’s an atheist victory, God help ‘em in a defeat!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Skeptical Arguments For Disunity

Evan from Debunking Christianity continues to make many false claims, often without even attempting to argue for his assertions, frequently ignoring what people have already written in response to him. He's been suggesting that there may have been a large amount of disunity among the early Christians. He suggests that they might have been so disunited that 1 John was condemning the apostle Paul for following a false Christ, for example. Since the argument for early Christian disunity is so popular among modern skeptics, I thought I'd post some links to a few articles that address the subject to some extent: here, here, and here.

The Presumption of Atheism


"So how do you know that Jesus of Nazareth wasn't one of the false Christs warned about in the Epistle of John?"

And how do you know that Jesus of Nazareth wasn't a Martian with retractable antennae? After all, Loftus informs us that he only has to suggest several alternatives scenarios.

Only Ray Walston knows for sure.

The Myth of Roger Bannister: Interpreting History through the Lens of Evan

According to legend, Roger Bannister was the first human being to run a mile in under four minutes. But if we think about this for even half a second, we realize it’s a completely absurd story. Look at the average person. They weigh roughly three hundred pounds and couldn’t run fast enough to catch a bag of Doritos falling off their dresser. Even in my more athletic days (back when I swam a mile without stopping, for instance) I never ran a mile faster than about ten minutes…and we’re supposed to believe that someone ran it in under four? In fact, I live in Colorado Springs which has the US Olympic Training Center, and I’ve never seen anyone run a mile in under four minutes. Several of my coworkers run religiously (they hold to the myth, you see), and I’ve never seen them run a mile under four minutes. Surely, if it were true that Roger Bannister did it, it wouldn’t be so hard for the average person to accomplish.

So how do we explain this? Well, we grew up reading comic books about Superman. And Roger Bannister is nothing more than a myth of Superman. See, Superman could run faster than a speeding bullet (and he could, therefore, run a mile in under four minutes). Because people looked up to Superman and longed to be like Superman, we created the myth of Roger Bannister. To make it more exotic, we pretended he was born in England (all good 20th Century myths require an Englishman. James Bond. Any questions? Didn’t think so.)

So what about the supposed evidence? Well, it’s all hearsay. None of us were there. Yes, the event supposedly occurred in front of thousands of witnesses, but none of them had stopwatches. And really, all you needed was to pay off the one person with a stopwatch who set the “official” time. Now tell me, isn’t it more likely that that one guy was paid off to lie than it is to think that Roger Bannister could actually run a mile in under a minute? And look at how the legend profligates to this day, with many athletes claiming to be able to do it themselves. (And we’ve seen how athletes lie when it suits them: ex. O.J. Simpson. Again, I rest my case.) Even if I was there and saw Bannister run the mile in under four minutes it wouldn’t prove he actually did. I would take the more likely truth that my stopwatch was flawed.

After all, the myth of Roger Bannister causes us to hope Superman is real. Those who believe in Bannister, frankly, could believe in anything. That’s what makes them so scary.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

"Dying and rising gods"

exapologist said...

1. Many in Jesus' day already thought Jesus was John the Baptist resurrected, so they clearly did have a concept of a single person dying and rising before the eschaton.

2. There was a lot of historical precedence for the idea from surrounding culture (stories of dying and rising gods that go back many centuries B.C., contrary to what the apologists reiterate ad nauseum).

Unfortunately, Exbrainer left out the conclusion. So let's complete his argument:

3. Ergo, many in Jesus' day thought that John the Baptist was a god.

Or did they? Hmm...

Jason Pratt: snake in the grass

Jason Pratt said...

For two largely completed portions of a metaphysical analysis arriving at orthodox Trinitarian theology (I haven't yet posted up the two middle sections of chapters), you might try my Sword to the Heart series of entries at the Christian Cadre Journal...As this is an ecumenical journal I don't spell out the implications with total explicitness, but it's there for those "who have eyes to see and ears to hear".)

Notice how he sails under false colors.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

"Dwindling probabilities"

Here are two responses (PDF) to Alvin Plantinga's argument from "dwindling probabilities."

Sergeant Pepper's Bleeding Hearts Club Band

Continuing my review of Robin Parry's The Evangelical Universalist (SPCK 2008).

The core appeal of universalism is emotional, and that’s one of his leading arguments. Even at that level, the emotional appeal of universalism is quite one-sided. We’d like to see our loved ones saved. But that doesn’t mean we feel the same way about Josef Mengele. I’ve addressed his emotional arguments at length.

In addition to the ad misericordiam fallacy, Parry also tries to cobble together an exegetical argument for universalism. Let’s review his major arguments.

In chapter 2, he tries to find a prooftext for universalism in Colossians.
He says “the ‘all things’ that are reconciled in [Col 1:]20 are, without any doubt, the same ‘all things’ that are created in v16. In other words, every single created thing” (45).

But there are a couple of basic problems with this claim, even on his own grounds. For one thing, he goes on to say, in reference to 1:22,
“clearly, the reconciliation spoken of here is the restoration of a harmonious relationship between the believers and God” (45).

Needless to say, that falls far short of “every single created thing.” To the contrary, it’s only a tiny subset of “every single created thing.” It excludes all inanimate things. Yet the “all things” that God created in v16 would include inanimate things. Hence, Paul’s sweeping language is hyperbolic. As one commentator notes:
This does not indicate "universal salvation," but that at the consummation Christ will bring about a harmony of all things in the new, eternal creation, after decisively judging evil and putting it in its judicial place (as 3:6 indicates; cf. also 3:25), G. K. Beale, Colossians and Philemon (Baker 2019), 111.
I’d add that “pacification” is not the same thing as conversion. The Pax Romana didn’t make the subjugated races fall in love with their Roman overlords.

In addition, when commenting on Paul’s statement that the gospel has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven (1:23), Parry admits that “Of course, this is not a description of the actual state of affairs” (52).

But that’s another admission that, in Colossians, Paul uses hyperbolic expressions. His statement is apparently universal in scope, but in reality, that can’t be the case. So Parry is forced to concede that, in Pauline usage, universal expressions are not literally universalistic.

Parry also skips over 2:15. But here we have a classic taunt-song, where the victor humiliates his enemies. That’s a very different concept than saving your enemies.

As one commentator explains,
“The general sense of the word is clear: it is a metaphor from the Roman Triumph, in which a victorious general led his troops through the city, with the spoils of war displayed for all to see and the defeated enemy paraded before his chariot,” R. McL. Wilson, Colossians & Philemon (T&T Clark 2005), 212-13.
That’s not a very good way of winning hearts and minds. That’s not how you befriend your enemies. Rather, that’s rubbing their nose in defeat through public humiliation. And, remember, this was a shame culture. Soldiers lived and died for honor, for reputation. So the disgrace would cut to the quick. As such, the theme of cosmic reconciliation in chap. 1 does not imply universal salvation.

In chapter 3, Parry admits, when all is said and done, that the OT doesn’t teach universalism (72-73).

Earlier, he quoted Isa 45:23. But the sweeping language of v23 is immediately qualified by the v24.

Parry tries to get around this by saying that v23 refers to Israel, while v24 refers to the nations, and if we took v24 at face value, that would exclude the salvation of the Gentiles—contrary to Isaiah’s teaching elsewhere.

But all this demonstrates is his wooden handling of Isaian usage generally. Isaiah has oracles of salvation and judgment for Israel as well as the nations. Yet, when speaking of Israel, an oracle of salvation doesn’t mean that every Israelite will be delivered—just as an oracle of judgment doesn’t mean that every Israelite will be condemned or punished. By the same token, oracles of salvation and judgment for the nations do not apply to the same set of individuals.

For one thing, oracles of salvation and judgment often refer to discrete historic events like the Babylonian Exile and the post-exilic restoration. As such, they address the generation living at the time of the event. So you couldn’t have the same set of people. Due to mortality, there’s a turnover from one generation to the next. These oracles aren’t directed at the same set of people throughout time. By birth and death, the population undergoes continuous change.

Of course, you can say historical events prefigure eschatological events. But, in that case, you have to project both oracles of salvation and oracles of judgment into the eschaton. The division remains: some are finally saved while others are finally condemned.

Parry also draws attention to the note on which Isaiah ends. In 66:23, you have a passage which, taken by itself, looks like a prooftext for universalism. Yet that is immediately followed by v24, where a clear line of demarcation is drawn between the worshipers of v23 and the rebels of v24.

Hence, in two of Parry’s OT prooftexts, Isaiah uses hyperbolic language. So you can’t infer universalism from Isaiah’s sweeping expressions.

In chapter 4, Parry cites Rom 5:18-19 as a prooftext for universalism. But one of the problems with this interpretation is that, according to Paul, justification is contingent on faith. So justification only applies to believers.

Parry tries to get around this by saying that “Paul needs only to believe that one day all will believe (and I shall argue later that he did)” (80). But there are two problems with this appeal:

i) That would turn on postmortem conversion. But Romans doesn’t teach postmortem conversion. Hence, Romans qua Romans doesn’t teach universalism. Therefore, Parry can’t very well cite Rom 5:18-19 as a prooftext for universalism. You can’t get that from Romans, for Paul has a doctrine of sola fide in Romans. To isolate Rom 5:18-19 from justification by faith does great violence to the teaching of Romans. And there’s nothing in Romans to offset that delimitation.

ii) Instead, Parry will try to invoke other Pauline epistles to establish universal salvation. But there are two additional problems with that move:
a) His other Pauline prooftexts do not, in fact, teach universal salvation.
b) Even if they did, they don’t teach postmortem conversion. Universal salvation is not equivalent to postmortem conversion. Parry needs a specific, Pauline prooftext for postmortem conversion if he’s going to use Rom 5:18-19 to prove universal justification consistent with sola fide.

Parry then discusses the use of “all” in Rom 5:18 (81ff.). One reason for the repetition of “all” is that the parallel structure, of itself, invites the use of parallel terminology. That’s a way of creating and reinforcing a parallel. You repeat certain catchwords. So the repetition of terms is partly rhetorical: a literary device.

Paul is setting up an analogy between Adam and Christ. Between Adam’s deed and Christ’s, as well as their respective consequences. A is to B as C is to D. Adam is to Adamites as Christ is to Christians. Each set is exhaustive within its domain, but that doesn’t make one domain conterminous with another domain.

We have to be sensitive to what parallels actually compare and contrast. Take all of A are like B with respect to C.  Everyone in Adam is alike with respect to condemnation. Everyone in Christ is alike with respect to salvation. That parallel doesn't merge the two groups. They may overlap, but they remain distinct.

Paul's argument is an argument from dysanalogy as well as analogy. The headship of Adam over against the headship of Christ.

And that, too, is part of the rhetorical structure. It’s easier to see the dissimilarities once you lay out the similarities.

Another concern, lying close to the surface, is to emphasize the ethnically inclusive character of the Gospel. God justifies Jews and Gentiles like—on condition of faith.

Parry then cites 1 Cor 15:22 as another prooftext for universalism. But there are several problems with that appeal:

i) V23 is epexegetical, delimiting the scope of v22 to Christians.
ii) Paul himself, in this very passage, points out that universal expressions in Scripture can be hyperbolic (v27; cf. Ps 8:6).
iii) In v26, Paul says that God will “destroy” (i.e. overthrow, dethrone) his enemies. That’s the language of conquest, not conversion. Parry tries to evade this by limiting the reference to fallen angels. But there are two problems with that move:
a) It could be a reference to human authorities, or human and angelic enemies alike.
b) In any case, Parry’s universalism extends to fallen angels as well as fallen men. That’s how he construes Col 1:15-20.

Parry then cites Rom 11:26. Of course, that’s is a very controversial passage. For now I’d make the following observation: In OT usage, “all Israel” is an idiomatic phrase. It’s not just a case of adding a universal quantifier to a free-floating noun. “All Israel” doesn’t mean “all Israelites.” If you study OT usage, you’ll see this phrase is used in a representative sense, such as chieftains who stand for their respective clans.

Parry quotes Richard Bell’s claim that it would be “unthinkable that an Israelite could be excluded from final salvation” (96). Of course, it’s that sort of spiritual presumption that John the Baptist rails against in Mt 3.

Finally, he appeals to Phil 2:10-11. But here he makes no effort to interact with the detail exegesis of O’Brien in The Epistle to the Philippians (Eerdmans 1991), 243-48.

On p102, he tries to dispose of the Reformed doctrine of special redemption in one paragraph. That isn’t a serious attempt to rebut Calvinism.

In chapter 5, Parry appeals to Revelation to prove universalism. The bulk of his argument turns on the conversion of the nations (15:4; 21:24,26; 22:2). But this reiterates his wooden handling of OT prophecies.

In reference to the nations, John alternates between oracles of salvation in judgment. In that respect he repeats the pattern of the OT prophets, to whom he’s indebted.

This only creates a tension if you treat “the nations” as a monolithic unit. But “the nations” is just a conventional synonym for gentiles. And there’s no reason to treat every reference to the salvation or damnation of gentiles as denoting a numerically identical people-group. That would be quite unhistorical.

All men don’t live and die at the same time. The enemies of the church aren’t identical from one decade to another.

And Revelation isn’t limited to one-time events. It’s partly concerned with endtime events, but it’s also concerned with a perennial battle between God and his people, on the one hand, over against the enemies of God—throughout OT history and the church age. Both history and eschatology figure in revelation. Past, present, and future.

In Revelation, its philosophy of history is both linear and cyclical. The church age will come to an end. There will be a final judgment. But every Christian generation may have to face persecution.

John uses this designation (“the nations”) because it’s a traditional, OT designation, and he’s incorporating OT oracles of salvation and judgment into his own prophecy. So he alternates between the two, just as OT prophets alternate between the two—depending on the time and place. OT oracles don’t have a uniform referent. That’s historically variable. Israel didn’t have the same enemies from one decade to the next. And the pattern repeats itself in church history.

Unless Parry is either a pure preterist or a pure futurist, he can’t limit all the action in Revelation to a one-time event—with the same cast of characters. The immortal actors remain in place (the Trinity, angels, devil, demons), but not the mortal actors (human beings).

Parry also appeals to the description of the 144,000 as the “first-fruits” to argue that “the nations” represent the rest of the harvest (188).

i) However, that doesn’t necessarily follow. As Beale points out, the first-fruits were dedicated to God. So that can imply a separation between the first-fruits and the remainder of the harvest, which is profane. Cf. G. Beale, The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans 1994), 744.

ii) In addition, Parry’s argument assumes that the 144,000 are a subset of the redeemed. But that, too, is debatable. Cf. Beale, ibid., 416-23.

Parry then says of 22:17, “But to whom does she speak? One plausible audience is those in the lake of fire (after all, who else is there?)” (119).

How that’s plausible, he doesn’t say. It would only be plausible to a universalist. Commentators generally identify Christ as the target of this invitation.

Parry misses another point. The invocation in 22:17 isn’t limited to an end-time speaker. It applies throughout the church age.

This coda (22:6-21) is not a part of the narrative (4:1-22:2). It lies outside the narrative. It doesn’t come at the end of the chronological sequence, as a final event within the chronological sequence.

Parry says “this universal vision of salvation is confirmed again by the proleptic vision in 5:13” (119).

Actually, it’s just a literary antithesis. As Aune points out, “This is a verbal repetition of 5:3, where no one in the entire universe was able to open the scroll,” Revelation 1-5 (Word 1997), 366. So it’s a literary device: from “no one” to “everyone.”

This is another example of Parry’s wooden exegesis. He’s a heretical version of Tim LaHaye.

Parry must also attempt to defang the verses in Revelation which speak of eternal damnation. One move is to claim that “the expression literally means ‘unto the ages of ages’ (not ‘forever and ever’)” (128).

How he arrives at that conclusion he doesn’t say. It’s as if he were merely transliterating the word—then inferring the sense from the transliterated term: aion>eon>age.

But words often have an idiomatic meaning, conferred on them by popular usage. It’s not as if the literal meaning is the real meaning. Rather, meaning is assigned by linguistic convention.

There are passages in Scripture which employ a two-age schema: this world and the world to come. However, that doesn’t work for Rev 14:11 and 20:10, where the world to come is the only world in view. Otherwise, you’d have a world to come after the world to come.

I also notice, both here and elsewhere (e.g. Mt 25:46), that Parry doesn’t quote from any standard lexicons to support his semantic claims. Instead, he quotes Edward Fudge, who is—of course—an annihilationist.

He then runs through a number of “possibilities”: “First, argue that John was simply adopting stereotypical descriptions of the postmortem life, which formally contradict 21-22 but which are subverted by 21-22 and are thus not intended to be taken strictly literally” (128-28).

There are two problems with this move:

i) The point of exegesis is to offer the best interpretation, not to deflect attention away from the best interpretation by compiling a list of barely possible interpretations.

ii) His logic is reversible. Assuming a formal contradiction, why should we take 21-22 literally? Why should we conform the other descriptions to 21-22 and not vice versa?

Another move is to depersonalize the damned: “the focus of 20:10 is the utter defeat of the systems and not the individuals” (129).

But “systems” are composed of persons, from top to bottom. And no one punishes a “system.”

“One could maintain, as some recent theologians have, that the devil is not a personal being but something more akin to a personification of evil” (130).

I see. So, when Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the wilderness (Mt 4), he was tempted by a personification. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

To depersonalize the devil, you have to demythologize the Bible. And once you start down that path, you should demythologize the Book of Revelation. To consistently implement that program, you have to secularize the Book of Revelation. You wouldn’t end up with universalism—even if Revelation taught universalism. For that teaching would be part and parcel of an antiquated worldview: the very thing we need to demythologize.

On this view, Revelation wouldn’t be about the world to come. About God and heaven and angels and demons. No, it would be about this world. A metaphor for the immanent, recurrent battle between good and evil here and now. There is no hereafter. So this move is fatal to Parry’s thesis.
“One could maintain that the devil will be punished forever, but that Lucifer will ultimately be saved…The devil, like the ‘flesh,’ must be destroyed…But he dies, and Lucifer is reborn as a redeemed angel. It would still be possible to speak of the devil being tormented forever and ever to symbolize this defeat even though no actual being is still in the lake of fire” (131).
Sounds to me like Parry has been reading too much Alister Crowley or Anton LaVey.
“It ought to be noted that a debate has arisen within recent Gospels scholarship about whether Jesus actually spoke of punishment in the afterlife at all…According to Wright all the passages that warn of the fires of Gehenna speak not of any postmortem punishment but of the premortem events of AD 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed” (141).
One problem with this move is that it would also apply to whatever Jesus said about salvation in the afterlife. The Gospels can’t teach universal salvation if they don’t teach eschatological salvation.

And what about apocalyptic imagery in the other NT writings? Perry can only undercut some of the prooftexts for everlasting punishment by undercutting some of his prooftexts for universal salvation in the process.

Indeed, Parry goes on to mention that Andrew Perriman applies Wright’s approach to the rest of the NT. But that’s a double-edged sword. It isn’t limited to prooftexts for postmortem judgment.
“The strongest argument against a universalist interpretation of Jesus’ teaching starts by arguing that any adequate interpretation of Jesus’ words about final punishment must begin by reading them against the background of beliefs held by his contemporaries. Second Temple Jewish beliefs on the postmortem fate of those outside salvation are not at all uniform…However, none of them expected any kind of universal salvation. Thus, when Jesus spoke about the fires of Gehenna, almost everyone who was listening to him would interpret his words as a reference to the final state of the lost. Few, if any, of Jesus contemporary listeners would have understood his words as leaving any room for hope for those who find themselves in Gehenna…I think that it is quite clear that Jesus’ contemporaries would not have thought that he was a universalist of any variety” (144-45).
Sounds good to me.

In reference to Mt 25:46, he says,
“the translation of aionios has been the subject of numerous studies in recent years, but there seems to be a strong case for maintaining that it means ‘pertaining to an age’ and often refers not just to any age but to ‘the age to come’” (147).
He doesn’t cite any lexicons to corroborate claim. For example, the entries on aion and aionios in the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (1:44-46) contradict his blanket claims.
“Thus ‘eternal life’ may be better translated as ‘the life of the age to come’ and ‘eternal punishment’ as ‘the punishment of the age to come’” (147-48).
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we play along with this rendering. When, in cursing the fig tree, Jesus says “May no fruit ever come from you unto the age [eis ton aiona] (Mt 21:19),” does he mean the fig tree will bear no fruit in the present age, but it will bear fruit in the age to come?

Likewise, when Jesus says that “whoever blasphemes the Holy Spirit has no forgiveness unto the age [eis ton aiona] (Mk 3:29a), does he mean the culprit is unforgivable in this age, but will be forgiven in the age to come? Not according to the Matthean parallel (Mt 12:32).

He then quotes another author’s claim that
“the point is not that the fire will burn forever, or the punishment extend forever, or that the life continue forever, but rather than all three will serve to establish the rule of God” (148).
But assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is correct, then it doesn’t teach either everlasting life for the sheep or everlasting punishment for the goats. How does saying, “the point is not that the life continue forever” lend any support to universalism? How would that distinguish between universal salvation and universal annihilation?
“Any interpretation of Gehenna must be compatible with the claim that God is love and would never act in a way towards a person that was to ultimately compatible with what is best for that person” (148).
Of course, that merely begs the question in favor of universalism. MacDonald has abandoned exegesis, and is now insisting that Mt 25:46 can’t teach everlasting punishment since that would conflict with…universalism. Isn’t that a wee bit circular? The fact that MacDonald feels the need to make this last-ditch appeal betrays the weakness of his case against the traditional reading of Mt 25:46.
“The verse [Mk 9:49] has long perplexed commentators, but it seems to indicate that the fires of Gehenna function as a place of purification” (150).
As one commentator notes:

The suggesting that it refers to the purifying fires of purgatory finds little support in the NT. More likely is the idea that it refers to the final judgment, for the preceding verses refer to "fire" in this manner (9:43,48; cf. also 1 Cor 3:10-15). Yet "salted" is better understood as a metaphor involving purification (Ezk 16:4; 43:24), and in Mt 5:13 "salt" is understood positively. Thus it is best to interpret this verse as a reference to the purifying experiences of Christians in their journey to life/the kingdom. These experiences may involve persecution, for fire is often a metaphor for persecution (1 Pet 1:7; 4:12; Rev 3:18). R. Stein, Mark, 450. 
Back to Parry:
“In Romans 9 we saw the division within Israel between those ‘elect according to grace’ and those who are ‘objects of his wrath fitted for destruction.’ This division looks very final, but Romans 11 demonstrates it to be temporary. This serves as a warning to those who move too quickly from Paul’s claims about an apparently final division between the lost and saved to a traditional doctrine of hell” (151).
i) Of course, I don’t concede his interpretation of Rom 9-11. I favor the exegesis of Murray, Piper, and Schreiner. Parry doesn’t engage their exegesis.

ii) Moreover, to say it's temporary is ambiguous. The hardening may well be temporary, but not for the generation that's hardened. Rather, one generation is hardened while that's lifted on a later generation.

So far from Rom 9-11 undermining the traditional doctrine of hell, it underwrites the traditional doctrine of hell.

Parry then tries to neutralize 2 Thes 1:6-10. In the process, we’re treated to such gems as:
“Were one able to sit down with Paul and discuss the issue with him, he would agree that the [universalistic] qualifications did bring out the fuller dimensions of his theology, even though he never had them in mind when he wrote. Talbott could answer the question, ‘Would Paul agree with your interpretation?' with the reply, ‘He would if I had an hour to discuss it with him’” (154).
Of course, this isn’t exegesis. It’s the abdication of exegesis.

But even if, for the sake of argument, we indulge in this imaginary scenario, then that exercise isn’t limited to the universalist. Suppose, ex hypothesi, that Parry’s Pauline prooftexts apparently teach universal salvation. But I could counter this impression by claiming that if I had hour to sit down with Paul and talk it over, he’d agree with my qualifications.
“One could interpret the Book of Life in a predestinarian sense: God, before the foundation of the world, chooses whom he will save and records their names. This could be supported by 17:8 and 13:8. If that is correct, then, as Beale notes, universalism will have a problem in Revelation; for the universalist needs a Book of Life with flexible contents—one in which names can be deleted and, more importantly, added…If the context of the book is fixed before creation, then this is impossible” (192).
Parry then tries to evade the force of this argument by appealing to Rev 3:5. But there are several problems with that line of argument:

i) Parry mentions Beale in passing, but completely disregards his Calvinistic interpretation of Rev 3:5. Cf. G. Beale, The Book of Revelation, 278-82.

ii) Rev 3:5 is, of course, a standard Arminian prooftext to undermine the Reformed doctrine of perseverance. But there’s no reason in the world why Rev 3:5 would also be a prooftext for universalism. In Arminianism, true believers can lose their salvation; in universalism, everyone will be saved. Christian apostasy has no logical place in universalism.

iii) If universalism were true, then why would the names be penciled in? If universalism is true, then logically, everybody’s name ought to be inscribed with indelible ink before the foundation of the world. No names ought to be added or erased.

Parry appeals to other Arminian prooftexts like Heb 6. But this assumes the Arminian exegesis of Heb 6. Moreover, even if the Arminian interpretation were true, that’s hardly an argument for universalism. Just the opposite.

Parry also has an appendix on Ephesians in which he tries to extract universalism from Eph 1:10 and 1:22. To some extent, 1:22 unpacks the content of 1:10. However, there’s nothing in the terminology of 1:22 that implies universalism. As Hoehner points out,
“The metaphorical language ‘under his feet’ has the idea of victory over enemies. It is used of the winner of a duel who places his foot on the neck of his enemy who has been thrown to the ground, like Joshua who had his generals place their feet on the necks of the five defeated Amorite kings (Josh 10:24; cf. 2 Sam 22:39). Similarly, everything is subjected under Christ’s feet, meaning that everything is currently under his control, both friends and enemies,” Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker 2003), 283-84.
In sum, Parry’s exegetical argument for universalism is no more successful than his sentimental argument for universalism.

The legend of Sargon


“I think the story of Sargon being floated in a basket of reeds down the river as an infant is a myth (that predates the Moses myth).”

This comparison is more impressive the less you know about it:

1.Evan disregards the intertextual parallels between Noah and Moses: both are placed in an “ark” (tebah) waterproofed with bitumen.

2.”While certainly a folklore theme, the practice of placing a child in the river may have been a widely practiced form of abandonment, similar to the more modern practice of leaving a child on the doorstep of a house,” T. Longman, Fictional Akkadian Autobiography, 56.

3.Apropos (2), both Egypt and Mesopotamia were riverine civilizations.

4.Papyrus was a natural, Egyptian building material for rafts (cf. Isa 18:1-2). Wood was costly.

5.Evan confuses the date of Sargon with the date of the legend.

“Although set in the life of King Sargon of Akkad (2371-2316BC), the surviving fragments of the tale are Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian in date (7C-6C BC)…A further problem for those wishing to find a correlation between the Sargon legend and the Moses birth story is, as noted above, that the earliest surviving copies of the Sargon text date from Neo-Assyrian or later times. This factor, along with others, suggests that the legend may have been recorded by (or for) the late 8C Assyrian king, Sargon II, who took the name of his great Akkadian forebear and identified himself with that monarch. This possibility diminishes the case for the Sargon legend influencing Exodus because if we allow that J or E (usually dated to the 10C and 8C respective) is the source behind Exodus 2:1-10, and follow the traditional dating for these sources, both would predate the reign of Sargon II (721-705),” J. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt, 136-37.

And that’s predicated on the late dating scheme of the Documentary Hypothesis. If we accept Mosaic authorship, the account antedates the legend of Sargon by many centuries.

6.”Exodus 2:3 contains the central elements of the Moses birth narrative that are so commonly compared with the Sargon legend. Yet we see [138-39] that this verse contains no less than six words used in Egypt during the New Kingdom…How is the presence of Egyptian terms in the narrative to be explained, especially if the motif was borrowed from Mesopotamia? This significant concentration of Egyptian terms militates against the Mesopotamian connection…Furthermore, it seems unlikely that a scribe during the late Judaean monarchy or the exilic period (or later) would have been familiar with these Egyptian terms,” Hoffmeier, ibid., 140.

The alternative would be for Evan to accept the Mosaic authorship of Exodus. I doubt he considers that an attractive fallback position.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Level Of Argumentation At Debunking Christianity

Evan is a member of the Debunking Christianity staff. He recently wrote a post in another thread here that made many unsupported and erroneous assertions about early Christianity. After Evan wrote such a disreputable post, John Loftus commented:

"Good luck trying to reason with these hyenas, Evan. I've tried with no success. But there was a Christian who used to listen in and comment not too awful long ago who recently told me he/she is now an atheist, in part because of exapologist and me. So maybe it's worth the effort here after all."

Here are some examples of Evan's "effort":

"Even in the late first century Minucius Felix says that Christians are called such because they are anointed (the meaning of the word Christ) and does not mention that they are followers of a man named Jesus of Nazareth at all."

"How about what Celsus said, he was a Christian"

Minucius Felix wrote in the late first century? Celsus was a Christian?

Meanwhile, at the Debunking Christianity thread I linked to earlier, Jon Curry writes:

"And it's certainly not about hoping that apologists such as Jason will change their opinions. We've seen the apologist deny the mountain of evidence for evolution, deny that Jesus prophesied an imminent second coming, deny that the accounts in Scripture of Judas' death contradict one another, and deny many other clear falsifications for their views. We have no illusions that this tablet would matter."

Jon was banned from this blog last year for his irresponsible behavior. But anybody interested can consult our archives for discussions of issues like the ones Jon mentions, including discussions Jon left without addressing many of our arguments.

In the same thread, DingoDave writes:

"It strikes me as being incredibly ironic when people who claim to believe that, 'Donkeys can talk, And people can fly, And a man named Jesus Lives up in the sky' accuse atheists and skeptics of engaging in wishful thinking."

Of course, a claim like "donkeys can talk" (note the plural) is obviously false only if Christians were claiming that donkeys speak human language by means of a natural ability to do so. That's not what Christians claim. The belief that one donkey was made to speak on one occasion by supernatural means, an act that's portrayed as unusual by the Biblical documents themselves, isn't equivalent to a claim that donkeys in general have a natural ability to speak.

Or is DingoDave assuming naturalism without argument, then concluding that nothing he considers supernatural can occur? Why, then, should we accept his unsupported assumption? And why did he use the plural "donkeys"?

It seems that DingoDave comes from the same brand of skepticism that leads people to conclude that Minucius Felix wrote in the first century and that Celsus was a Christian.

DingoDave continues:

"I noticed that one of the contributers to his blog is the calvinist nutjob Paul Manata. That just about says it all to me about Jason's credibility (or lack of it)."

Aside from the fact that he doesn't support his (mis)characterization of Paul Manata with any argumentation, what are we to make of a blog whose contributors write the sort of material we see from, say, John Loftus and Evan?

Exapologist, in the same thread, refers to belief in a resurrection of John the Baptist at the time of Jesus' earthly ministry (Matthew 14:2). We have to distinguish between a resurrection as defined in the case of Jesus and the term as it's commonly applied to other concepts (resuscitation, etc.). Since Jesus presumably looked significantly different than John the Baptist physically, and since their two lives overlapped, Herod clearly isn't referring to any traditional notion of resurrection. Apparently, he had some sort of mixed concept in mind that he hadn't given much thought (other incidents also reflect poorly on his theological abilities). I see nothing in the account that would suggest a belief in a resurrected individual along the lines of what Christians believe about Jesus. Terms like "resurrected" and "raised" are often applied to other concepts.

Latex universalism

(Posted on behalf of Steve Hays.)

Sgt. Pepper's Bleeding Hearts Club Band has responded to my post.

[Gregory MacDonald:]
But there is nothing unusual about that way of thinking theologically. It is no different from claiming that empirical evidence that the earth is not stationary and is not the centre of the solar system should cause us to rethink biblical texts which seem to suggest otherwise. I imagine that Steve himself interprets the Bible in the light of some insights from Copernicus and Galileo. Nobody would suggest that by doing this he is subordinating revelation to reason.
Of course, I've written about the hermeneutical consequences, or not, of the Copernican Revolution. But let's bracket that for now and grant MacDonald's example for the sake of argument.

The problem with this analogy is that MacDonald's parallel falls apart at the critical point of comparison. In the case of the Copernican Revolution, we have, so he says, empirical evidence that the geocentric interpretation is false.

By contrast, we have no empirical evidence that the traditional doctrine of hell is false—much less any positive empirical evidence that universalism is true. Hence, MacDonald's argument is stillborn. Moving along to the next casualty:
So I hope that it should be clear that Steve has misunderstood my position. If I was convinced that universalism was unbiblical I would stop being a universalist.
In light of what he said in the first chapter, this is deeply deceptive. It would leave the reader of his blog, who hadn't read his book, with the misimpression that if he were convinced that universalism was unscriptural, he'd revert to belief in the traditional doctrine of hell, along with believing in the God who was responsible for that outcome.

But in the first chapter of his book, he said he came to the point where he viewed such a God as unworthy of his worship. So he's turned the corner on that option. Even if he changed his mind on universalism, that doesn't mean he'd changed his mind on everlasting punishment.

If, however, MacDonald is prepared to say that he could worship such a God after all, then now is the opportunity for him to clarify his position.
Emotion has a very important place in theological and ethical rationality so I make no apology for caring about those in Hell. I am just sorry that Steve is able to consider the whole matter from a non-emotional perspective.
Well, that sounds very noble and all. Let's take a concrete example. Let's put a human face on universalism.

Remember Jessica Lunsford? Jessica was the nine-year-old girl who was abducted, raped, and later buried alive by John Couey.

Now, even before we bring hell into the picture, what, exactly, does it mean for MacDonald to care for John Couey? Can one be equally concerned for little Jessica as well as man who kidnapped her, repeatedly raped her, and then buried her alive to dispose of the incriminating evidence?

How would Jessica feel about MacDonald's indiscriminate compassion? Would Jessica feel that Couey is entitled to MacDonald's compassion? Or would she feel that it's very uncaring to her to be so concerned about the fate of her rapist and murder?

This is one of the problems with MacDonald's appeal to emotion. It cuts both ways. His emotions come at the expense of other people's emotions. And, what is worse, his emotions come at the expense of those who are genuinely entitled to our sympathy.

Explain to Jessica why your sensibilities don't permit you to worship a God who would sentence John Couey to hell and throw away the key.

Far from being kind and compassionate, universalism is a very haughty and callous position. Yes, Mr. "MacDonald," you owe little Jessica an apology. Her blood screams from the grave at your perverted empathy.

I find it interesting that his most bitter criticism of you (ad hominem, anyone?)
Since Rachel is logically challenged, let's spell it out for her. MacDonald began his book with some autobiographical anecdotes about his journey from the traditional doctrine of hell to universalism.

That, of itself, is an ad hominem argument, Rachel. The author is using his personal experience to explain and justify his theological development. So his case for universalism is, in part, predicated on his own ad hominem argument.

I am therefore responding to him on his own grounds. Get it? If he chose to frame the issue in personal terms, then his personal experience is fair game. Get it? Is that too difficult for you to follow?
...arises because he feels that you are a universalist because you are a limousine liberal who has led a charmed life, when there are some voices today arguing for universalism from the perspective of the oppressed.

Marilyn McCord Adams writes:
Focus on horrors clinches my universalism, because horrors are levellers, inficting their prima facie life-ruining power on both perpetrator and victim alike. My confidence that all horror participants are redeemed from ruin rests on the conviction that the worst evils are too bad even for the guilty; or better, that horrors are no respecter of moral worth, indeed evacuate it of its usual significance.
Here we have one limousine liberal (Rachel) quoting another limousine liberal. Because Rachel sees everything through her tinted windows, she's blind to how patronizing this is.

In what sense is Adams arguing for universalism "from the perspective of the oppressed"? Is Adam's quoting the victims? Did Adams do a documentary on the victims of horrendous evil? Is this a transcript of her interview with the victims?

No, this is Adams taking it upon herself to speak for the victims rather than handing the microphone over to the victims and allowing them to speak for themselves.

This is Adams presuming to tell the victims how they ought to feel about their perpetrators. Does that represent the perspective of the victims? Does that represent the perspective of Jessica Lunsford? Would the victims of the Khmer Rouge share Adams' s boundless compassion for their killers?

For that matter, how to perpetrators feel about other perpetrators? How does one Mafia Don feel about a rival Don? How does this represent the perspective of the interested parties? It doesn't. It only represents the viewpoint of Adams, which she is superimposing on the interested parties. Get it?

Rachel, I'd like to hear you explain to little Jessica why you think a "life-ruining" punishment is too bad for John Couey. Take your time.
Moltmann, who deals a lot with oppression and liberation, also has a universalistic eschatology with justice for victims and perpectrators alike.
Here we have a further example of one limousine liberal (Rachel) quoting another limousine liberal (Moltmann). Did Moltmann consult the victims on their definition of eschatological justice? Would they define justice for their perpetrators in terms of universal salvation for victim and perpetrator alike? Does Moltmann have any polling data on that question? Of course, it would pose a logistical challenge to poll the victims of the Khmer Rouge. A bullet to the back of the skull has a way of reducing the focus group.

Incidentally, I have no problem with people who speak on behalf of victims. I do have a problem when they pretend to give voice to victims while, in reality, they use the victim like a ventriloquist dummy to express what Adams and Moltmann believe.

[Gregory MacDonald:]
Rachel - Hello again. I had not picked up on that. I guess that there is some truth in the claim that I have not been the victim of major injustices so it is all very well for me to say that God will redeem the one who inflicts the injustice. I can see why someone might feel that. However, a Christian ought to be able to get past that. The God of the Bible is the God who pardons and transforms and reconciles people who deserve none of those things.
Of course, MacDonald is peddling several half-truths in this statement: i) God doesn't pardon everyone. He damns some of them. Many of them. ii) And for those he does pardon, forgiveness is not unconditional. Rather, it's contingent on faith and repentance. iii) It's also contingent on the atonement. Penal substitution. God pardons and transforms and reconciles those he redeemed in Christ. But that's secondary to universalism. Universalism is driven by what it opposes. By opposition to everlasting punishment. That opposition isn't predicated on the atonement. Rather, it's predicated on the notion that everlasting punishment is unjust, unloving—or both. iv) Likewise, Christians don't have an unconditional obligation to forgive everyone who sins against them. The saints in Rev 6:10 hadn't "gotten past that." v) Even more to the point, what does Christianity have to do with it? Universalism applies to everyone, right? Not just to Christians. It applies to Spartans and Aztecs and Samurai and suicide-bombers. Yes, by all means tell an S. S. officer that he "ought to be able to get past that." Tell him that it would be unchristian to be vindictive. I'm sure the Gestapo will be impressed by your appeal.
You are absolutely right that Moltmann and Adams develop universalisms in ways that take horrors deeply seriously. Thanks for noting that.
To the contrary, Adam's simply treats everyone as the victim. We're all victims of tragic circumstances. Therefore, God should forgive us all. Adams is trivializing horrendous evils by her exercise in moral equivalence.

Her universalism is a variation on the Officer Krupke defense, transposed to a global key:
Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, You gotta understand, It's just our bringin' up-ke That gets us out of hand. Our mothers all are junkies, Our fathers all are drunks. Golly Moses, natcherly we're punks!

Gee, Officer Krupke, we're very upset; We never had the love that ev'ry child oughta get. We ain't no delinquents, We're misunderstood. Deep down inside us there is good!

There is good!

There is good, there is good, There is untapped good! Like inside, the worst of us is good!

(Spoken) That's a touchin' good story.

(Spoken) Lemme tell it to the world!

Just tell it to the judge.

Dear kindly Judge, your Honor, My parents treat me rough. With all their marijuana, They won't give me a puff. They didn't wanna have me, But somehow I was had. Leapin' lizards! That's why I'm so bad!

(As Judge) Right!

Officer Krupke, you're really a square; This boy don't need a judge, he needs an analyst's care! It's just his neurosis that oughta be curbed. He's psychologic'ly disturbed!

I'm disturbed!

We're disturbed, we're disturbed, We're the most disturbed, Like we're psychologic'ly disturbed.

(Spoken, as Judge) In the opinion on this court, this child is depraved on account he ain't had a normal home.

(Spoken) Hey, I'm depraved on account I'm deprived.

So take him to a headshrinker.

(Sings) My father is a bastard, My ma's an S.O.B. My grandpa's always plastered, My grandma pushes tea. My sister wears a mustache, My brother wears a dress. Goodness gracious, that's why I'm a mess!

(As Psychiatrist) Yes! Officer Krupke, you're really a slob. This boy don't need a doctor, just a good honest job. Society's played him a terrible trick, And sociologic'ly he's sick!

I am sick!

We are sick, we are sick, We are sick, sick, sick, Like we're sociologically sick!

In my opinion, this child don't need to have his head shrunk at all. Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease!

Hey, I got a social disease!

So take him to a social worker!
[Jason Pratt:]
I saw that same crit of his (among other similar ones) go by during a five-or-six way debate between Calvs, Arms and Kaths (with Thomas Talbott and I on the Kath side), over at Victor Reppert's DangIdea journal several months ago. Steve retracted it when I pointed it out, for whatever that may be worth.
I retracted nothing. Zippo.
I don't know whether it's a case of Steve wanting vengeance on perpetrators who've hurt him and/or who've hurt people he loves, or whether it's a case of Steve projecting a hatred of 'liberal revisionists' onto anyone who disagrees with his theology (in complete disregard of how 'liberal' they actually are). Maybe some of both. God knows; I don't.
A great illustration of Jason's moral posturing Despite the philanthropic veneer of his universalism, it's inconceivable to him that a Christian might wish to see a perfect stranger vindicated.

And, true to his smarmy tactics, he smuggles in the word "vengeance," instead of "justice"—hoping to exploit the invidious connotations of "vengeance."
What I do know, is that I'm less concerned about any injustices inflicted on me (such as by, to take a small example, Steve Hays {wry g}),
A perfect specimen of his pansy universalism. On the one hand, he wants to dispense forgiveness to all the perpetrators of the world—because he's so loving and caring and compassionate. On the other hand, if anyone "denigrates" him, he whines and complains about how badly he's been mistreated.

Jason loves to extol universal forgiveness as long as no one rips his lace curtains or chips his china teacups. Let's have a nice, polite conversation about the Khmer Rouge. Let's hug the perpetrators with our latex gloves on. Let's have a civilized talk about Jessica Lunsford and John Couey.

Jason's universalism is purely hypothetical. He doesn't live there. It's a coffee table book. Don't crack the covers. Just keep the dust off the glossy cover. As long as we keep the perpetrators at a distance, we can wax loving and forgiving and issue our plenary pardon.

But if anyone raises his voice in Jason's presence or uses a harsh tone of voice—why, that's uncalled for. Jason's universalism evaporates on contact with the elements.

Jason, please explain to Jessica, while John Couey is raping her, why God would be "Satanic" not to save him from hell. And be sure to put on that wry smile of yours.

Jason, please explain to Jessica, while John Couey is stuffing her in a garbage bag, why God would be "Satanic" not to save him from hell. And be sure to put on that wry smile of yours.

Jason, please explain to Jessica, as John Couey buries her alive, why God would be "Satanic" not to save him from hell. And be sure to put on that wry smile of yours.

And maybe Rachel can read aloud some inspirational excerpts from Marilyn McCord Adams while all that's happening. Universalists are so sensitive and caring.
Which, as I clearly recall, more than a few scriptures have something to say about, too! (If I am not willing to show mercy and forgiveness to those who trespass against me, then I am the one who will not be forgiven by God. A warning I take very seriously, as a penitent sinner.)
What does Jason think that warning amounts to? That you might hang out in Purgatory? But that's remedial punishment. And you can always tap out. "Hell" is juvenile detention for universalism. Spend a few years in juvie, then pack your bags for glory.

And Jason doesn't take the warning seriously, because he misrepresents the warning. A Christian is not obligated to forgive unconditionally. Jason rips these passages out of context.

Take Lk 17:3. That's not unconditional. The offender is a fellow believer. And forgiveness is contingent on contrition.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Another Opportunity For Wishful Thinking

Over at Debunking Christianity, one of the self-debunkers writes the following about the Gabriel Revelation tablet:

I think it's compelling evidence that the "Jesus" of history is a manufactured cult that grew out of the failure of the Jews to win independence from the Romans. It then seems that the Jesus of faith is an accretion of multiple strands of pagan and Jewish thought redacted into a soteriology of blood sacrifice already extant in significant numbers of pagan mystery cults and ancient near eastern sacrificial motifs.

A highly speculative reconstruction of such a fragmentary text allegedly referring to such an undefined concept of resurrection is "compelling evidence"? How did Christianity get "manufactured" and "grow" with "accretions", followed by "redactions", in the manner Evan describes in such a short period of time, with contemporaries and eyewitnesses of Jesus still alive and in prominent places (the Roman government, church leadership, etc.)?

Evan does end his post with:

But that's just my opinion.

The key word is "just".

The Resurrection Tablet

Some Christians have been writing about the recent news stories regarding a pre-Christian tablet that allegedly refers to some sort of resurrection of a messianic figure. See, for example, Ben Witherington's blog. Some critics of Christianity have picked up the story, such as Richard Dawkins' web site and Debunking Christianity. The New York Times article mentions some of the problems with the tablet and its use by Christianity's critics, and Ben Witherington and his commenters mention some other problems. But one of the commenters on the blog writes:

One argument I've heard against Christianity quite a few times is that early Christians copied earlier "groups" (can't think of the proper word). Doesn't this article seem to confirm that?

In all reality shouldn't Christians be a little worried that the Jesus they have grown to love and worship could be a fake who tricked people into thinking he was the Messiah?

How many different concepts in Christianity are supposed to have been borrowed from how many different sources now? Wasn't the Christian resurrection claim supposed to have been derived from pagan religion X? Or was it pagan religion Y? Or Z? Or wasn't it from some Jewish source? Or maybe it was from this latest Jewish source that's being discussed. Or maybe it's another pagan or Jewish source that will be found a few years from now. Apparently, just about everything in Christianity was borrowed from just about everybody.

I realize that critics don't make that claim. And I realize that one critic isn't responsible for what another critic argues. But I'm exaggerating to make the point that the argument for Christian borrowing seems to be largely overused and unverifiable. It's Play-Doh in the hands of a lot of critics who use it in a lot of different, and contradictory, ways.

If we grant all of the critics' assumptions about what the tablet says, it does have some significance in weakening the case for Christianity. But not nearly the level of significance that some people are suggesting. If the concept of an individual resurrection prior to the general resurrection, or a resurrection of a suffering Messiah in particular, is found in this tablet, then that concept isn't as unique to Christianity as some people have argued.

I'm reminded of a comment Eric Svendsen made a few years ago, regarding the perpetual virginity of Mary. Some Roman Catholics were suggesting that they had found a document that in some way supported their reading of Matthew 1:25, although the vast majority of the relevant literature was still contrary to their position, even if their interpretation of this one document were granted. Eric responded by summarizing their argument as something like: "Our position is no longer impossible to defend! Now it's just nearly impossible to defend!"

As one of the commenters on Ben Witherington's blog notes, we have a large amount of literature from the centuries leading up to Jesus' birth, from His contemporaries, and from the generations that followed shortly after. Finding a concept in one tablet from that era doesn't change the fact that it's absent from and contrary to the vast majority of the sources of that time. If the critics' reading of this tablet is correct, we still have to ask how likely it is that the tablet or its ideas influenced early Christianity and what the nature of that influence was.

The argument for Jesus' resurrection involves many lines of evidence. The uniqueness of the resurrection concept is just one line among others, and it's one that some Christians don't even use. And the resurrection is one argument for Christianity among others. Critics would still have to address fulfilled prophecy, the other miracles of Jesus, and the miracles of the apostles, for example. This tablet doesn't make a major difference for or against Christianity.