Looking at Critical Scholarship Critically: A Response to Greg Carey

Looking at Critical Scholarship Critically

Recently, an article by Greg Carey, professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary has been making the rounds.

As I read it, I was stunned by the profoundly patronizing attitude displayed by the author towards conservative Christians. I was deeply disappointed at his misrepresentation of conservative responses to the issues he raises. Dr. Carey’s article is useful in one respect: it provides an excellent case study of the validity and honesty of modern liberal biblical scholarship.

Before I get into the substance of the article, I will comment on my own personal journey of biblical study: For the past three years, I have been studying the Bible intensively. After becoming an Orthodox Christian, I developed a profound interest in dialogue with Protestants concerning the substance of Biblical teaching. At first, my studies were purely apologetic. I was spending (and continue to spend) literally three hours or more daily reading the Bible (both Testaments), reading books about the Bible, reading articles about the Bible, and listening to lectures about the Bible. As I read both liberal and conservative scholars, I became progressively disillusioned with the state of modern scholarship.

Perhaps the best example of my disillusionment concerns the book of Daniel. Daniel is a book that presents no middle ground: it is either genuine prophecy or outright forgery. Purporting to be written during the Babylonian captivity, Daniel presents us with a detailed history of world empires down to the time of Christ (if one approaches the book as a conservative) or the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (if one approaches the book as a liberal). The unanimous consensus of modern critical scholars (following the ancient pagan, Porphyry) is that Daniel is a forgery, written to encourage Jewish people during the crisis sparked by the desecration of the Temple under Antiochus IV. Daniel 2, however, presents a sequence of four kingdoms immediately followed by the kingdom of God. Were the book simply after-the-fact prophecy about the Maccabean Period, the fourth kingdom would have to be Greece, requiring interpreters to find three kingdoms preceding Greece.

The problem is that there were not three major kingdoms that preceded Greece. There were two: Babylon and Medo-Persia. In order to solve this problem, modern scholars argue that Daniel understood Media and Persia to be separate kingdoms. As I read liberal studies of the book of Daniel, I searched for real justification for this idea. The text itself seems to mitigate strongly against it. Daniel 5:28, for example, speaks of “the Medes and the Persians” as a single kingdom. Daniel 6:8, 6:12, and 6:15 refer to “the laws of the Medes and the Persians,” obviously implying that this was a joint kingdom. Furthermore, plain references to the kingdom of Greece do not fit within the mainstream understanding of the four-kingdom schema. As soon as the Greek Empire was established by Alexander the Great, his kingdom fell into civil war and split into four, under four different generals. This is plainly referred to in Daniel 7:6 by a leopard (indicating the speed of Alexander’s conquest) with four wings (representing the four generals). The difficulty is that this is the third, rather than the fourth beast. Modern scholars therefore have to fight against the text and insist that this beast is actually Persia. Daniel 8:8 likewise refers to a kingdom which divides towards the four winds of heaven, and modern scholars agree that this refers to Greece. The problem is that the preceding kingdom (Daniel 8:5-7) is a two-horned goat, clearly indicating Medo-Persia, and soundly refuting the idea that Daniel understood Media and Persia as separate kingdoms.

If this is true, then the fourth kingdom, the fourth beast, must be Rome. If that is true, however, then Daniel is genuine prophecy. This is why I say that Daniel leaves us no middle way. Yet modern scholars persist in their absurd twisting of the book in order to continue in their “strong delusion” (2 Thess. 2:11) that one may approach the Scriptures naturalistically and emerge with anything like fact-based conclusions. Daniel is but one example of where I have found modern critical scholarship utterly wanting in its reading of the Bible. I could write similarly about the unity and authorship of the Pentateuch, the unity of the prophetic books, or the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Letters. I have written this in order to give a counter-point to Dr. Carey’s personal testimony of his lost faith in the inspiration of Scripture. Studying the Bible does not mean that one will eventually dismiss the Bible’s inspiration. One must be willing, however, to recognize that modern academia is in fact deeply naturalistic in its orientation. As naturalism is a false worldview, modern academia is likely to produce many false conclusions, and I believe that study of the Scripture bears this out.

With this said, then, let us proceed to the individual claims of Dr. Carey and see how they stand up to analysis. Dr. Carey identifies the problems he raises in the strongest possible terms, writing that “But no such explanations exist [for the problems raised].” What are the problems raised in the article?

1) Contradictions

One must realize when analyzing alleged contradictions in the Scriptures that the substantial reliability of the Bible does not rise or fall with its absolute inerrancy. The dividing line between a conservative and liberal biblicist is not inerrancy, but the trustworthiness of Scripture in its substance. While I personally have come to the conclusion that the Bible is inerrant, I know faithful Orthodox Christians who have come to the conclusion that such a word does not precisely describe the phenomena of Scripture. That said, let us take a look at the contradictions that Dr. Carey raises and see whether it is true that “no explanations exist” for such problems.

Did Jesus say that whoever is not with him is against him (Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23), or did he say that whoever is not against him is for him (Mark 9:40)?

This is not a contradiction in the least, because the Lord intends these statements in different ways. In the former, Christ speaks of those who have cast out demons in His name but who have not yet joined His circle of disciples. He indicates to the Apostles that they must not prevent such men, because they will not soon afterward be able to speak evil of Him. In other words, they are well on their way to joining the fellowship of Jesus. By contrast, in Mark 9, Jesus is speaking of His work in binding the strong man (Satan), and delineates between the side of Christ and the side of Satan: whoever is not on Christ’s side is on Satan’s side. Matthew and Luke both indicate that those who cast out demons in Christ’s name were in fact on Christ’s side. But what truly renders this alleged contradiction absurd is the fact (carefully left out of the article by Dr. Carey) that Luke 9:49-50 reports the same account reported in Mark 9:40! Dr. Carey was attempting to show that Luke and Matthew were editing and revising Mark’s Jesus. Yet the fact that Luke presents both accounts side by side indicates that no such revision was in process. Both statements are true, because they are in different contexts and are meant in different ways.

Who was there to visit Jesus’ tomb? 

One must realize, of course, that silence does not constitute a denial. That some women were reported to be present at the tomb in one Gospel does not mean that the Evangelist believed they were the only women at the tomb. Richard Bauckham, in fact, argues in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that the differing lists are indications of which witnesses were consulted in the composition of the resurrection narratives, rather than being intended as a comprehensive list of who was present at the Tomb.

How did Judas die (Matthew 27:1-10; Acts 1:18-19)?

This alleged contradiction was actually noted by the Fathers of the Church. While St. Matthew reports that Judas bought a potter’s field and hanged himself, St. Luke reports that Judas fell and his stomach broke open. It is evident that both authors are working from a common tradition, as both report that the “Field of Blood” was purchased with the money he received after he betrayed Jesus Matthew indicates that it was the chief priests who purchased the field, but because the money was Judas’, it would have been purchased in his name and legally owned by him as in Luke. For more, see here. Is harmonization, then, truly implausible? The traditional harmonization explains that Judas hanged himself, the rope broke, and his stomach burst open as he fell. Given the common elements in both accounts, indicating common tradition, there is no reason to dismiss such a harmonization as implausible.

That plausible explanations exist for each of Carey’s three alleged contradictions is enough to refute the claim that “no explanation” exists. Why did Dr. Carey not inform us that he knew there were explanations, but found them implausible? For readers not versed in the literature, such arguments may appear powerful and such statement definitive. They are not.

2) The Synoptic Problem

With a colorful chart, the instructor was explaining how the Gospels were composed — that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke relied upon copies of Mark. As soon as I saw that chart, I instantly knew where we were headed! There was no way the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses who simply remembered things differently.

Dr. Carey implies that the “Synoptic Problem” is an insurmountable one for traditional Christians. I found such a statement utterly bizarre. Many conservative scholars, such as Dr. Craig Blomberg (who has written extensive books on the historicity of the gospels) accept the priority of Mark and the dependence of Matthew and Luke on Mark. If this hypothesis is true, then St. Mark wrote his gospel based on the testimony of St. Peter (given Papias’ early testimony, often summarily dismissed without justification) and St. Matthew relied, in part, on Mark because St. Peter was part of the Lord’s “inner circle” of Apostles. St. Luke then relied on Mark because Luke was not a witness at all. Even if Dr. Carey’s understanding of Markan priority is correct, then, this presents no challenge for the traditional Christian: the Church has always known that there is a textual relationship among the first three Gospels! Unfortunately, Dr. Carey does not report the serious challenges to the present (waning) consensus about the priority of Mark and the existence of a second source called Q (Quelle, German for source) which Matthew and Luke were dependent on. A series of essays edited by Mark Goodacre and Nicholas Perrin called Questioning Q provides a serious critique of the prevailing hypothesis. John Wenham’s Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke presents an even more radical challenge. Yet none of this is reported by Dr. Carey, because he wishes to convey an impression of utter certainty within modern biblical scholarship. Such certainty does not exist.

3) Premarital Sex and Scripture

My second memory involves the one thing that most bothers pious high schoolers: sex. Our church leaders warned us not only to abstain sexual intercourse but also to avoid those heavy makeout sessions that lead to removing sweaters, exploring panty lines and so forth. And depending on what the meaning of is, is, I pretty much succeeded. But I was also reading my Bible. And nowhere did I find all this stuff about saving sex for marriage. (That’s because the Bible doesn’t include that message, certainly not consistently.)

This is by far the worst argument presented by Dr. Carey. While he notes the fact that an “adult leader” at his church could not provide an answer to his query, this is meaningless. In fact, the New Testament contains a plain answer to the question of sex before marriage. St. Paul says,  “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (1 Cor. 7:8-9) That marriage is the only place where sexual passion finds its proper outlet obviously implies that sex is forbidden before marriage. Furthermore, since the Apostle speaks to the unmarried, comparing them with himself, it is clear that he includes both men and women in this category. Whether or not Dr. Carey’s “adult leader” knew the answer to his question, it is absolutely inexcusable for a “biblical scholar” to present such a question as unanswerable. The Scripture contains a clear witness against premarital sex, for both men and women.

4) What About Slavery?

Finally, Dr. Carey refers to St. Paul’s command that slaves must obey their masters, likening it to black slavery in the American South. Such a comparison is deceptive, for several reasons.

First, it fails to take into account the breadth and sophistication of the Apostle Paul’s thought. For example, in the letter to Philemon, the Apostle has taken both a slave and a master as his spiritual children. He sends Onesimus (the slave) back to Philemon (the master) with the command that Philemon receive Onesimus as if he were Paul himself (Philemon 1:17). Then, in a hint that we should not miss, St. Paul says that he knows Onesimus “will do even more than I say.” (Philemon 1:21) What more could Philemon do than receive Onesimus as a brother? The only option would be to free him. The foundation of this radical commandment is Paul’s belief that the crucified Jew had become king of the universe. God had summed up all things in Christ and presented the Church as a new, united humanity. This meant that there could be “neither slave nor free” (Galatians 3:28). Indeed, in Ephesians 6 itself, Paul reminds masters that the Master in Heaven, Jesus Christ, shows no partiality when judging slave and free. Aristotle had argued that slavery was written into the fabric of the cosmos. Paul said the opposite. This is why there were no abolitionists among the pagans. Slaves were numerous, however, among the Christians, and St. Gregory of Nyssa argued that masters must release their slaves. This also underlies the difference between black slavery and St. Paul’s view. The anthropological justification for Southern slavery was that blacks are a different “kind” of person. Paul’s teaching about the unity of all humankind in Christ annihilates such heresy. The process of releasing all slaves is not nearly as simple as Dr. Carey (sitting at his computer in a comfortable chair in the modern West) presents it. Many rich Christians in the fourth century released all of their slaves—and the slaves were furious! Their masters, while rich, did not have enough money to provide homes and livelihood for all of their former slaves, and the slaves were left destitute. Institutional slavery requires care and time as it is unraveled.

In my studies, I have learned that much of academia, far from being neutral or unbiased, is deeply biased. Like all of us, academics are products of our time. It just so happens that our time is deeply secularistic and naturalistic in orientation. That naturalism is a false way of looking at the world has become clear to me in the way naturalist scholars treat and interpret the Bible.


  1. Daniel says

    Outstanding Piece. Thank you. Interesting, as I read the part you wrote about premarital sex, I had another thought. First this caveat: what you wrote was absolutely correct and that should end the silly argument from Dr. Carey. My thought though is that there was no need in the Bible for a direct verse that says “don’t sleep around before marriage”, because that was plainly understoody by all. In the same way that there isn’t a verse in the Bible that says that 2 + 2 = 4.

  2. says

    You write, “Daniel is a book that presents no middle ground: it is either genuine prophecy or outright forgery.” Why do you think it has to be either-or? You haven’t addressed the question of genre. You merely *assume* that it’s a straightforward presentation of history, either that of the book’s past (vaticinium ex eventu) or of its future (prophecy). You also fail to take note that four-empire schemes were well known in antiquity, eg Hesiod and Plato, and a dating after the writing of those well-known writers slots nicely with a view that the book is a late, *literary* creation, a meditation on the meaning of history presented as prophecy. It’s not good to forget that the ancients were capable of writing things at least as subtle as we are, and that, as I believe Plato said, “Fiction is a lie that tells the truth.” It’s not good to assume that the bible is basically a history book. It’s meta-history. The whole thing.

    On Daniel, you might enjoy David W. Gooding, The Literary Structure of the Book of Daniel and Its Implications: Tyndale Bulletin 32 (1981) 43-80. The Tyndale Old Testament Lecture, 1980. A very helpful 15-page treatment that brings the message and purpose of Daniel nicely into focus. I don’t think the book is as old as he says, but since the discussion is about structure not dating, it’s still a great article. You can find it as the bottom article at http://jbburnett.com/theology/theol-bib-ot.html.

    You quote Carey as saying, “Did Jesus say that whoever is not with him is against him (Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23), or did he say that whoever is not against him is for him (Mark 9:40)?” If that’s what Carey said, he’s just being sloppy. The passage from Mark says, “Who is not against *us* is for *us*”. Being against *us* (Jesus + disciples) is a different matter than being for or against Jesus himself.

    Your harmonization of the two versions of Judas’ death is unconvincing. Yes, it’s somehow “plausible”, i suppose— but remove the motivation of wanting to “prove” that the two accounts “really” say the same thing **because you need them to do so**— and you’ve taken away all foundation. Plausibility is simply not assurance or proof. I’m content to allow it to remain a question until a more satisfactory answer emerges— perhaps some hitherto unnoticed literary background, or turn of phrase elsewhere in the book, or perhaps the question will just stay unresolved. But it will not do, to claim that you’ve proven anything by *speculating* on what an answer “could” be! And at least one implication of the fact that there are, indeed, two *different* stories, is that at least one of them might not be an eyewitness record but a “tradition” of some kind. I don’t have a problem with that, because the meaning of the book is *in* the book, not outside the book; he could have fallen on his sword, for that matter, but the writer told it the way he did in view of the total story he was writing.

    On the question of pre-marital sex, it’s actually a very interesting observation that the Bible nowhere actually forbids it explicitly (although the OT does assign penalties). That’s why you actually have to grasp at a rather far-fetched straw to come up with anything, because Paul is not making the point you’re drawing from him in the passages you adduce. Therefore, to press them to yield absolute generalizations is less than satisfactory. The word “adultery” clearly means that the woman was married, and it is absolutely excluded, but more for social reasons than by reason of what we call “morality”. “Fornication” described sex with an unmarried woman, whether the man was married or not; with prostitutes, etc. In any case, these words themselves do imply taboo and opprobrium. But it’s interesting that NT nowhere lays out a specific sexual ethic, and our modern implicit notions of morality are quite different than those of the ancients, because ours is a guilt culture and theirs was a shame culture. This is actually huge. And beyond that, we are quite aware today that different cultures and different periods have addressed the issue of what is acceptable or not rather differently. That is not to suggest license!— but it is to suggest that the whole question is less simplistic than you seem to want to make it.

    If you become a good scholar, eventually I think you’ll find the labels, “conservative” and “liberal” just aren’t very useful. There are the facts before us. There are the ways we construe the facts, based on the best we know. Theories rise and fall, but our commitment is to the Text, not to any theory. Therefore, our real enemies are only three: dishonesty, sheer ignorance (which might or might not be vincible), and sloppiness.

    • says

      Regarding the Judas bit, you neglect that Seraphim’s post is a reply to a specific claim about the supposed contradiction or incompatibility between the accounts. It isn’t an argument that the text itself makes the traditional harmonization necessary or best (on textual grounds alone, at least), but it’s a refutation of the argument that there is something inherent to the text that renders the traditional reading implausible or even impossible. If you concede it’s not implausible, then you concede that Seraphim’s refutation of the point made in the original article is sound.

    • Seraphim Hamilton says

      John- Much to say in response. I have a habit of being blunt in these conversations, so please do not take any of the following personally or harshly. It is certainly not intended to be so- plus, I’m not quite sure of your exact view of inspiration, so I’m giving the broadest possible response to many of your comments.

      I have heard many attempts in modern scholarship to modify the definition of “forgery” so that pseudipigrapha in the Bible becomes less religiously offensive. That simply doesn’t work. The ancients were fully aware of the diference between a work that was presented falsely as the work of a particular person, and a work that was presented as fiction in itself. The proof lies in the writings of the Fathers against the Gnostic gospels- one of their most significant points is that these Gnostic texts are forgeries. It is especially hard to press your point with the book of Daniel, given that this very point (i.e. whether it was penned by the prophet Daniel or whether it was forged during the Maccabean period) was an argument between the Fathers and the pagan Porphyry. Porphyry suggested that it was penned during the Maccabean period in order to discredit the book. St. Jerome, instead of arguing that its authorship and date are irrelevant, argued that it is an authentic work of the prophet Daniel written during the exilic period. Furthermore, an essential part of the Maccabean hypothesis is that the fourth kingdom is Greece, and the kingdom of God was supposed to be established during the days of the Greek kingdom. The gospels, especially Luke, allude to Daniel 2 fairly frequently, and they (as did most of Second Temple Judaism) saw the fourth kingdom as Rome- and this apparently drove the Lord Himself during His ministry. If, in fact, Daniel was not penned by Daniel, what do we do with our Christology? Actual errors (especially given prophecy of himself!) in the mind of Christ are different than kenotic condescension. Progressive evangelical scholar Kenton Sparks casually suggests that evangelicals need to revise their Christology in order to fit his idea that Christ was wrong on a great deal. That might work for him, when Christology is an isolated doctrine in a systematic theology. It does not work for us, for whom Christology is the foundational doctrine of the Church.

      Concerning the four kingdom schema being present in later periods- I find your argument deeply unpersuasive, because it does not answer the question of whether it was also present in the Babylonian period. This is similar to arguments for a seventh century date for Deuteronomy (forged by priests who wished to increase their income by centralizing worship in Jerusalem) by noting similarities between Deuteronomy and seventh century Assyrian treaties. The problem is that these arguments never address the question of whether those similarities are equally present in the thirteenth century Hittite treaty form- and they are. Hittite treaties share in common with the Assyrian treaties what the Assyrian treaties share in common with Deuteronomy. And the Hittite type treaties share features with Deuteronomy (such as a historical prologue and blessings) which are not present in the later Assyrian type. With respect to the book of Daniel, then, the four-kingdom sequence symbolized by metals is present from at least the eigth century BC. Yes, it continues down through the Maccabean period, but it was certainly present and well known during the Babylonian period. The question is whether the four kingdom sequence fits with the Maccabean hypothesis. It does not. Daniel plainly presumes that Media and Persia were a joint kingdom, and that means that Greece cannot be the fourth kingdom, and that means that the Maccabean hypothesis is wrong, because the hypothesis itself is based on the idea that Daniel is ex eventu prophecy. If it is a meditation on the meaning of the Maccabean period, then the meditation was wrong when the kingdom of God did not arrive after Antiochus was defeated. One can only then admit Daniel’s inspiration if the term “inspiration” is stretched to the breaking point. If I meditate on the meaning of American history and am proven wrong, why should the Church count my writing as inspired?

      I think your juxtaposition of history against meta-history is quite problematic. The Scripture is packed with types and meaning because God Himself is the author and arranger of history. When we confess the incarnation, we confess an idea with profound significance- but its significance lies in the very fact that it is historical. If we view Scripture in an incarnational fashion (presuming, of course, an Orthodox understanding of what the incarnation constitutes unlike Sparks and Enns), then one cannot play the historical dimension against the meaning and significance of the text. Take John 20, for example. When Mary enters the Tomb, she sees two angels sitting on opposite sides of the gravestone. Obviously, this is symbolic of the two cherubim overlooking the mercy seat. Does that mean that the angels were not there? Or what about when Mary presumes that the Risen Lord is the Gardener? St. John tells us this detail because it illustrates Christ as the Last Adam and New Gardener. But do we isolate the meaning from the text and say that Mary did not think Jesus was the Gardener? As Orthodox Christians, we reject purely disembodied ideas and affirm that the Logos has been concretely manifested in all creation, particularly in the Church, and incarnationally in Jesus Christ. When something imperfectly symbolizes or manifests the Logos, we call that sin. I therefore proceed to my conviction about the historical nature of the Bible because I believe that history itself is governed by God and significant. If everything exists in virtue of its participation in the Logos, then everything symbolizes the Logos. Symbols are not imposed on top of creation and history, they emerge out of creation and history which themselves exist in and through the Logos of God.

      Concerning the issue of Judas’ death, it was never my point to prove that my harmonization was certainly true. Carey said that there were no possible answers. He was wrong. There are possible answers. Part of the problem, however, is that harmonization is not an abuse of any text *if we have reason to believe that the text is substantially reliable.* This is true for secular history as much as it is true for the Scripture. If we don’t believe that Matthew or Luke are even substantially reliable, then all bets are off, not just for harmonization, but for Christianity- as Orthodox Christians we are to soak ourselves in and live by the Gospels because they are the spoken words of the Incarnate Logos. Sure, the authors telescoped their history and the sermons of Christ, but if the gospels themselves are unreliable, then we are back in the world of disembodied ideas- and that is not the world of the Fathers, who insisted that the Logos is expressed *in reality.* If we believe they are substantially reliable, and a harmonization is possible, then that should be preferred de facto, even if one cannot prove (how would such a proof even be possible?) the particular mode of harmonization.

      Do I “need” the text to be reconcilable? No, I don’t think inerrancy is absolutely necessary for Orthodox faith. I have only recently come back to believing in inerrancy, and I am quite satisfied with my decision because it was an evaluation I made after studying the text in a fair bit of depth. I came to realize that even the most minute details in Scripture are provided for a reason, and often echoed throughout the Bible. For example, Abram driving away the birds from carcasses in Genesis 15 is picked up in Ezekiel 38-39 which, in turn, is picked up in Revelation 19. If the most minute details are inspired by God, and if God is a God of embodied reality rather than disembodied ideas (I hate to keep returning to this point but St. Maximus’ doctrine of the Logos is central to how I see the Scripture, and I regard it as massively important) then I proceed to a doctrine of inerrancy after observing the particular quality of inspiration displayed in the Bible. This is why the assumption that I first approached the Bible with the assumption of inerrancy is wrong. I came to this position after about three years of soaking myself in the Bible, and it is not a conclusion I made in doctrinal isolation. This, then, leads me to believe that all alleged contradictions are likely reconcilable, and there is no harm in presenting possible harmonizations.

      You say that the meaning of the book is in the book rather than outside the book. How far are you willing to take that? Could we find meaning in the resurrection of Jesus if his body was eaten by dogs? The Apostles believed that God had been faithful to His promises in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Throughout the Old Testament, the guarantee of God’s faithfulness is the exodus. Not just that a clever myth had been penned about a non-event, but that *your fathers* were *brought out of Egypt.* They had real ancestors, and Egypt is a real place. If the sign of YHWH’s faithfulness is unhistorical, then what is the fulfillment of his faithfulness? More books written about non-historical events? This is why the Scripture, theologically, must be historical. The Scripture accurately interprets creation and history through the eyes of the Logos, and creation is a place that has a real history.

      Concerning premarital sex, I am perplexed that you think my reading of 1 Corinthians 7 is a stretch. Why does the temptation to “sexual immorality” require each man to have his own wife (1 Corinthians 7:2)? St. Paul identifies singleness as something which he himself possesses (1 Corinthians 7:7), contrasting it with married life (1 Corinthians 7:8) and identifying marriage as the solution to the flame of sexual passion, if indeed one possesses that flame (1 Corinthians 7:9). Indeed, the singleness of the unmarried and the widows is the same kind of singleness as St. Paul’s (1 Corinthians 7:8)! The question with sin is always whether a particular act properly symbolizes the Logos. Hence, at creation, both man and woman were monogamous- the first mention of bigamy is with Cain’s descendant, Lamech, during an account of the downward spiral that led to the flood (Genesis 4:19-24). When Abram goes into Sarai’s servant, it is described in the same language as the Fall of Man (compare Genesis 16:2 with Genesis 3:17) and requires a renewal of the covenant (Genesis 17:1-4) typifying Israel’s Sinai covenant, their fall at the Golden Calf, and the renewal at the intercession of Moses. Indeed, Abram’s sin led to a blessing on Ishmael (by implication a curse on Abram’s covenant seed) which would be overcome at last in the messianic era (compare Genesis 16:12 with Genesis 49:8-11). The incarnation produces the heart-circumcision and it is the heart-circumcision which implies the restoration of full monogamy (Matthew 19:4-8 as monogamy was the creational pattern). And ultimately, the archetype of marriage in both Testaments is the marriage of YHWH and Israel, with YHWH as the male partner- and the theological force of this idea depends on the fact that YHWH did not have other women on the side! His utter and unique faithfulness to Israel in the exodus was the marriage and Sinai was the ring. If YHWH was permitted to have other unmarried partners, the force of the idea collapses. In the New Testament, marriage is explicitly presented as a symbol of Christ and the Church, with the same implication.

      Concerning the idea of a guilt and shame culture, I say the following as a former devotee of Pilch and Malina. I find such dichotomies at best misleading. The idea that guilt is a result of individualism is actually disputed by a fair few sociologists who identify signs of guilt in the ancient world- the response, in my experience, is always a claim (usually unsupported) that such sociologists are reading their own culture into the work of the ancients. But at that point, there’s no way to prove otherwise. The dichotomy is axiomatic. The first thing that led me away from Pilch and Malina was actually meeting a fair few people from Japan who were on a foreign exchange. That proved to me by experience that the dichotomy between guilt and shame (Japan is typically touted as the quintessential example of a modern shame culture) was at the very least overstated and reductionistic. After this I began to look up the debate among sociologists and discovered that the idea that the ancient world knew little of guilt was actually in great dispute, and you can tell that I fall on a particular side of this dispute.

      Finally, as for the labels “conservative” and “liberal”, all labels simplify to some degree, but most labels do describe categories with some degree of accuracy. The difference between a scholar who believes that YHWH began as a minor storm god on the Israelite pantheon and a scholar who believes El Elyon, creator of heaven and earth, called Abraham to bless the nations and did so through the Sinai covenant is more than a difference in interpretation of the facts. It is a difference in interpretive framework. We are never able to evaluate facts while floating. We all must do so standing on some ground. As we work on this ground, we may find that the ground is much shakier than we had initially thought. From my experience, I have found that a “conservative” framework leads to a far more satisfying and coherent approach to the Bible. My commitment is indeed to the inspired text, but if it turns out that the inspired text behaves in certain patterns (i.e. forgery, which is a category in ancient thought) then I must re-evaluate my commitment to its inspiration. There is a sense in which all mythology anticipates and leads us to Christ. But the Scripture does so in a qualitatively different way.

      I appreciate your thoughtful response.

  3. Geoffrey Miller says

    I have to say, these reasons and many others cause me to doubt the soundness of modern Biblical Scholarship on fundamental levels. I question whether many scholars even read religious scriptures in a holistic, comprehensive way anymore. I’ve seen the same sort of mistakes and misunderstandings–and even downright ignorance–relative to Buddhist writings, the Quran, etc. It’s not just a phenomenon of lousy Christian scholars.

    Something in the way modern academics read religious texts leaves them with piecewise, incomplete knowledge.

    When “experts” claim the New Testament indicates no condemnation of extramarital sex among early Christians, or that the Bible only condemns male and not female homosexual acts, something has gone horribly wrong with the scholarship involved. It’s quite easy to find verses to the contrary. Absorbing the general moral atmosphere of the writers only requires a single read-through.

    What gives?