Saturday, February 26, 2005

William Dever wrote his book, What Did the Biblical Writers Know?, primarily to combat scholars who believe that the Hebrew Bible has no value as a historical document. Admittedly, the only part of it that he believes might have such value is the Deuteronomical History of Joshua through to Kings and some of the prophets. The book is arranged into six chapters of which the meat is to be found in the fourth and fifth. The sixth chapter is largely a repeat of the second and third which gets slightly tedious in its repetition. It should be pointed that although this book is intended as a polemic against particular scholars, there is plenty of value for those less interested in academic squabbles.

The first two chapters are aimed squarely at Dever’s opponents who he labels as ‘post modernist’ and ‘deconstructionist’, intending both terms to be derogatory. We are treated to a hostile summation of the basics of post modern literary theory and then given a run through of the ideas of several individuals whom Dever considers particular offenders, including NP Lemche. There are three charges laid by Dever. Firstly, he does not think that literary criticism, especially when using the methods of deconstruction, are appropriate to the study of the Bible as a historical document. Whether they are appropriate to the study of anything at all, Dever leaves open to serious doubt, but he clearly feels that historians should avoid them. In this, he is correct up to a point. While historians have had to learn lessons from postmodernism, what is left that makes it distinctive is much less useful. I think that you can precisely identify when someone has gone to far. If they say “history contains fictive elements”, “complete objectivity is impossible” or “writers have an agenda” then you are dealing with sensible mainstream historians who have taken on board the important lessons of postmodernism. But when someone says “all history is fiction”, “objectively is completely impossible” or “texts have no meaning beyond what they are given” then you have found yourself a bona fide literary critic who should not be let loose in a history department. Whether or not Lemche falls into this category, I shall deal with when I come to review his work.

The second item of Dever’s charge sheet is to do with alleged personal agendas, politics and motivations. It seems to stem from a long running dispute and rather than intrude on private grief, I will leave the matter to one side. Anyone interested in the thrust and counter thrust of this row will find plenty to whet their appetite’s on the web, especially at Bible and Interpretation.

The third item on Dever’s charge sheet is ignoring, distorting or abusing modern archaeology. Lemche, he says, “cites only minimal data” in his recent works and other scholars are said to be even worse. Dever, who is a field archaeologist, is not happy that scholars with no archaeological experience are misusing his subject for what he claims are their own agendas. Is it true that they are? At least the accusation is made from Dever’s own area expertise and can be assessed from the evidence. When an esteemed archaeologist explains how non-archaeologists have misunderstood data from outside their own area of expertise, then we have a proper case to answer. On the other hand, all the stuff on motivation and postmodernism that Dever also alleges is unhelpful even if it is explicable in terms of previous accusations of bad faith made by his opponents.

I'll deal with the chapters that actually set out the evidence from archaeology next.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

As promised before Christmas, I have written a review of Roger Steer's Letter to an Influential Atheist which you can read here. I'm afraid it isn't a very flattering review. A good illustration of the books faults is that even or resident troll, Stephen Carr, has been able to put together a convincing rebuttal.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Related to the archaeology debate is this story about Edom which a friend pointed out. One of the problems with relying on silence is that there is always the risk that someone will find what you said was not there. This is always a test for anyone - do you admit you got it wrong or stick to your guns? Somehow, I can't see the minimalists going away any time soon.

Thanks to Layman for his comments on organ sale. I think that the problem of people wanting to get their hands on organs early is dealt with by using the life assurance system. The insurance company has no incentive to let anyone die early as they are the ones who have to pay out on that event (the sale of organs is not going to offset the entire cost of the pay out). Meanwhile, the organ donor has already got their benefit from lower premiums. So I do not think any new pressure towards euthanasia (which I oppose completely, of course) is brought to bear here.

Friday, February 18, 2005

I am reading a rather good book by William Dever called What did the Biblical Writers Know and When did they Know It?. Not much of a title, I grant, and neither is Dever much of a stylist but the content is fascinating and highly informative.

Most recent books about biblical archaeology (like The Bible Unearthed and It Ain't Necessarily So) have been aimed at debunking traditional religious claims about the historical accuracy of the bible. I am going to hold off on that topic until I have seen some evidence from the traditionalists' side, but Dever really takes it for granted. He wastes no time in saying that we can know nothing about the Patriarchs and the Exodus, as we read about it in the bible, did not happen. His guns are aimed squarely at the so-called minimalists who claim the whole Old Testament was written too late to contain any history at all. Thus, as far as the minimalists are concerned, neither King David nor Solomon existed, and neither did many of the kings listed as rulers of Judah down to the eighth century. Their main evidence for this is that archaeology is silent on the events depicted in the bible.

Dever's reply appears devastating. Whereas the minimalists are not archaeologists and do not appear to be familiar with much of the field, Dever is an experienced field archaeologist of great repute. When he says the evidence is there, you have to sit up and listen. And his book is full of fact after fact after fact. He marshals huge amounts of archaeological data to find convergences with the biblical record and declares we can get at the history. Yes, the bible is biased and has a theological agenda, but we can get past that by using external evidence and factoring out the bias. Nor is Dever a naive positivist as he also has a great deal to say about schools of archaeological theory.

Much has been said about how bad tempered the debate between Dever and the minimalists has been. I actually found the book quite restrained most of the time. However, Dever is certainly pissed off that non-archaeologists are presuming to write books about what the subject does and doesn't say when they do not appear to have the necessary expertise. Also, Dever claims that Thomas Thompson, a leading minimalist, has accused him of unethical practices and falsifying results. If this is true, then Dever's anger is justified. Another criticism leveled at Dever is his dismissal of post-modernism. In fact, the entire third chapter of the book is given over to theory and Dever's complaints are not against post modernism per se, but against using literary criticism to try and do history. In this, he is absolutely right as I have repeatedly been saying about new wave studies of the New Testament.

Celsus, of Ebla Forums, is a supporter of the minimalists and has recommended Niels Peter Lemche as their most credible spokesman. So, I also have got his The Israelites in History and Tradition out the library and will report back on whether it really is as baseless as Dever alleges.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Here's an attempt to be controversial.

Here in the UK we have a chronic shortage of organs for transplant. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is what people simply don't seem to be too bothered. Carrying a donor card is not enough because your next of kin need to give consent as well (weird, I know). And while many people are happy for their organs to be used in principle, in practice they do not even carry the card or make clear to their next of kin what their wishes are.

Now, I expect we can all agree that organ donation is a good thing. But there is also a consensus that selling organs is bad form and I find myself wondering why this is. I am currently only considering organs from dead people rather than sad cases of someone who is alive selling a kidney. Also, ignore the scare stories about killing off slum children for their organs. There is no reason that NHS hospitals would use organs that did not have a crystal clear provenance. Setting up a market would not be very hard and policing it would be easy enough too. So, I think the abhorrence of selling organs is largely a matter of taste.

Here's a suggestion: when we take out life insurance, we could also sign a legal document that allows the insurance company to harvest our organs if they are useful. The company would sell the organs on to the NHS or private hospitals at whatever price the market at the time was demanding. In return, the donor pays lower life insurance premiums because the insurance company expects to be able to get something back from the organ sale. Furthermore, insurance companies are exactly the right companies to manage the risk of valuing a future asset. As the whole thing is voluntary, there are no ethical issues I can think of.

So a part from being in bad taste, what is stopping us from setting up a market in a desperately needed resource that would result in everyone benefiting? I'm really not sure.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Please could someone tell me what all the German comments mean? I meant it when I said I couldn't understand the language!

You may remember the Bede v Barry debate before Christmas. I put my last post up on 20th December and that seems to have concluded the debate. Barry feels he does not have the time to commit at this time of year so unless I hear from him again, the debate is now closed.

Finally, I'd like to wrap up the debate on the tsunami and the problem of evil, ably continued in the comments to the relevant posts, with this article by Guy Consolmagno, one of the Vatican's astronomers, who sums up both sides well even if he can't quite reconcile them. Thanks to Alan for the link.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The week before last, Professor Anthony Grafton, the famous early modern historian of ideas from Princeton, came and had a chat with us. He talked about how he ended up studying the sixteenth century instead of classics as he had originally planned. The problem was one of languages. He was told that while Latin and Greek were certainly useful for classics, the language he really needed to learn was German which he didn't know. The same is true for theology where universities put on special German courses in their theology departments for graduate students. In fact, this is how GA Wells ended up as an 'expert' on the historical Jesus. As a professor of German he was better able to read much of the secondary literature than historians were.

I have come to the conclusion that the best way to look really clever is to make reference to lots of German works with long titles in your footnotes. Certainly, it finishes most debates on the internet with remarkable alacrity if you start referring people to German sources. As I can't read German, this isn't advice I can take myself but I predict that atheists will be dropping names like Hermann Detering and Karlheinz Deschner. These guys are the German equivalent of Freke and Gandy, but being German they sound so much more impressive! Be warned.

Ironically, back in the real world of scholarship, German and other European languages are being increasingly marginalised. More and more work in the humanities is being published in English and many continental journals are also featuring a majority of their content in English. The reason for this is not just American cultural imperialism, but has rather more to do with the fact that outside the UK, there are few world class universities left in Europe. They have all turned into government run degree machines where original scholarship is increasingly marginalised. And as all the top universities are now anglophone, it is hardly surprising that English is rapidly becoming the language of all scholarship and not just science.

Monday, February 07, 2005

The Kansas school board row made it on to the BBC this morning, and into the Guardian (the newspaper of the liberal left in the UK and read by most people who work at the BBC). Here's the Guardian's story.

Let me say from the outset that I do not believe Intelligent Design is correct as usually stated. But I also find the attitude towards it by the secular media to be fundamentally dishonest. The stories simply assume that there is some great battle between science and religion going on here. While it is true that some atheists try to milk science for their own faith (Dawkins, Atkins and others spring to mind), it is the ultimate irony that their propaganda is believed to actually represent the views of Christians. The battle over evolution does not impact on other areas of science and there is no great conflict here between faith and reason. What we have is a few foolish atheists who have tainted evolution with their own prejudices and then pretend shock that it has made Christians suspicious of the subject.

The best thing that could happen for evolution is for prominent atheists to admit "When we said evolution and God were incompatible, we were wrong. We admit this and apologise for misleading the public." Only then might it be possible to undo the damage. Many people will continue to believe the Genesis story, which is their right. But once the link between atheism and evolution was broken, the hostility which exists at the moment would cool down and rows like that in Kansas would fade away.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Correspondent Frank Roberts has these interesting comments to make on the discission about God and natural evil:

I am concerned that much of the theodicy arising from the tsunami is not
really Christian at all. Most conventional theodicies are essentially Stoic
meditations on how best to preserve equanimity in the face of death in
association with belief in Benevolence. Christ did not offer generalised
justifications when faced with tragedy. It is worth comparing His attitude to
that recorded of Buddha. A mother asked him to raise her dead child, so he
replied that he would if she brought him a cup of water from a house where no
child had died. The rest follows as might be expected. This story could
just as easily be told of any Greek or Roman sage. Its essential message is
"People die, lady. Deal with it."

Such a response from Jesus is unimaginable and that is precisely why
pagans like Celsus despised Jesus. Pagans quoted the verse "Jesus wept" from
John`s gospel as proof positive that Christianity was fit only for women and
slaves. And "Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted" inverts
the entire Stoic and Epicurean value systems. The tsunami raises no issues
that an individual death does not raise and when faced with individual death
Jesus never spoke or acted as a sage, but always as one who saw death as an
ourage deserving compassion not Stoic apathy.

Jesus did not deal in theodicies. They are an invention of the revived paganism of the Enlightenment and have no place in traditional theology. Our answer as Christians to tsunamis, as to our own deaths as individuals, is and can only ever be resurrection. Christ offered no other and who are we to improve on Him?

I would certainly describe myself as an occasional victim of enlightenment mentality. Frank's words are probably more true than anything I have been able to offer, but at the same time, I am not sure I find them adequate in dealing with the issues. Perhaps that is my problem.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

If you ever thought that atheists have any right to preach to Christians about morality (and some do), then have a look at this thread at the Sec Web. An old man, loved my millions, is gravely ill, and all but one of atheists on this thread are dancing for joy. Some people really make me sick. As for the Pope, it seems he is recovering and will hopefully continue to stick two fingers up at secular bigots for a while yet.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

I can't agree with everything in the sermon that Jon kindly transcribed and posted as a comment to my last post. For instance, I do insist that God reserves the right for special miraculous action on rare occasions that he believes necessary. Likewise, I do not think Jesus calmed the storm due to the power of his human nature as the sermon seems to imply. Basically, nothing I say about what I think the ordinary workings of nature are should be taken to mean I do not think God intervenes specially on occasion as well. I think Alvin Plantinga covered this quite well in one of his lectures last term.

Another problem with what I said is that it begs a question about heaven. We are to believe that heaven will square the circle of allowing us to love and be good without the attendant evil and sinful impulses. And how can we be free in heaven and never sin?

I can only speculate about this sort of thing but at least I can present some suggestions to those who see a contradiction here. It seems to me that having developed our ability to love and do good, we will not lose it simply by moving to an environment where evil does not exist. Our experiences that have taught us these valuable lessons will remain with us so we will always know what evil was even if we never experience it any more. We are also taught that we will have new bodies in heaven of which that of Jesus after the resurrection is a precursor. It seems likely that these bodies will lack the evolutionary instincts for status that are the root of nearly all human sin. Thus, while sin is part of our very nature here on earth, which is why we are said to be 'fallen beings', it need not be part of our heavenly nature. So no one in heaven would choose to sin just as we never choose to do things against our nature on earth. In theory, I am free to go and throw myself in front of a car. In practice it is never going to happen as it is against my nature. Sin in heaven will seem equally absurd.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

After blogging my thoughts on the problem of natural evil, I was rightly taken to task for dismissing any link between freewill and natural disasters. Firstly this was due to traditional Christian theology that dates nature's hostility to man from the Fall. But even if we do not exactly subscribe to such a doctrine, there are other links between the two subjects.

It is fairly clear that God grants the universe a great deal of freedom in the way it operates. The whole point of natural laws is that the universe can function without the need for God to step in and make adjustments the whole time to keep the show on the road. At the same time, those natural laws are not deterministic and so God has not set everything up in advance to come out a certain way. However, he does know the way it is going to turn out and so must think of the result as being good. Thus, I would say that the universe is allowed a 'radical integrity' and given the trouble this can cause we must assume that it is central to God's purposes.

So why did he not create a world where things are better than they are here? Why does he tolerate the inevitability of scarcity, evil and pain? Why not create a world where everyone has what they need and do not have a desire for more than that? I suggest that the reason for this is tied up with the idea of 'radical integrity' and God's obvious desire that we should be our own creatures and not simply automatons.

Imagine a perfect world. In that world, there are animals who never need worry about where the next meal is coming from, never need worry about finding a mate and never need worry about getting eaten. We can be absolutely sure that these animals will never evolve into conscious beings because there is simply no need to. They won't be happy because the concept of happiness can never occur to them. Evil doesn't exist but neither does the concept of good. They simply do not have the ability to comprehend either concept. What about love? I can't see how that can have appeared either because love almost always involves some sort of self-privation which is impossible in a world without scarcity. Of course, God can step in and create the difficult conditions in which these ideas can develop, but that makes him even more responsible for evil than he is already. If you want a universe that enjoys radical integrity and you want love and good to develop, you have to ensure that the conditions exist for them to appear. Without scarcity, they won't. The flip side is that scarcity gives rise to other consequences. The human desire for status is a direct evolutionary result of the fact that there is not enough to go around.

In our universe, love and good have developed to a quite remarkable extent. This has happened because natural evil exists. This natural evil has also given rise to much moral evil because pride, violence and promiscuity have all evolved because of it. But without it, we would not be conscious of good either or, if we were, we would not be free as the concept of good would simply have been planted in our heads by God rather than being something we discover for ourselves. Thus beings who know love and good through their own efforts can only evolve in a world of privation. Otherwise, everything we value, including freewill and consciousness, simply won't exist.