Statements of Faith and the Myth of Leftwing Higher Education (99% Pure)

I‘ll warn you now: this is long and has to do with politics.

Recently, I was talking with a family member who is very far to the right, politically. He is a baby-boomer, and like many boomers, the last election drummed up his political awareness – or maybe it just made him more vocal about his already-held political views. I’m not sure.

He tends to believe conservative myths. The word “myths” isn’t exactly accurate, though. These aren’t narratives that express a certain worldview, unencumbered by fact. These are rather facts unencumbered by facts, ones not based on empirical reality – indeed reality often contradicts them – that grow out of this worldview. They are the sort of thing that must be true if the conservative worldview is true; the worldview comes first. (So in the title of this post, I use “myth” in a popular sense, like the Mythbusters do).

There are plenty of these types of things in political discourse, and I’m probably just blind to a lot of moderate or leftwing bullshit (I mean that in a technical sense). I mean the “fact” that abortion makes up 94% of what Planned Parenthood does (it doesn’t), or that doctors rip full-term babies from mothers’ wombs and kill them (they don’t). But 94% is just so specific – who would make it up? (Not surprisingly given the rhetorical aims of the Susan B. Anthony List, it derives from faulty statistics meant to get as high a percentage as possible). It’s the kind of thinking that says that mass media is super liberal while dismissing the high viewership of Fox News, the high listenership of conservative radio, and being blissfully unaware that The National Enquirer – appearing in every grocery store you’ve ever been in – became a pro-Trump propaganda machine once his buddy bought it out, because these empirical facts undermine the “truth” of the liberal mass media.

The last time we talked, he threw out the claim that 99% of universities in this country are far left. 99% is not as specific as 94%, nor is it based on any data (mishandled or not). It seems to say, rather (to paraphrase a man he greatly admires), “Some of them, I assume, are good universities,” but very near to all of them are not. He was thinking of recent rioting at Berkeley, a school which for him seems to become emblematic of higher education.

When I went to Madonna University in Livonia, MI, it did not seem ultra-leftwing to me. When I went to the University of Georgia, which some conservatives in Georgia view as a sort of liberal oasis, I met way too many guys with confederate flags railing on about states’ rights (wink, wink), advocating the genocide of Muslims, and casually describing the beating they would give to a gay man if he ever came to their houses, to agree with the impression of higher education as filled with pinko radicals. (BTW, it’s weird how quickly people trust that you agree with their hate when you are a cisgendered, straight white man). Even at Michigan State University, students frequently distanced themselves from the University of Michigan by highlighting how gay, how Asian, and how liberal U of M students were. Since I did not pick these universities for their politics but for their programs, how did I keep getting the few schools in the just 1% that weren’t indoctrinating me to overturn the government (wait, that sounds more rightwing these days…) or to model our politics on Russia (damn it!)? My schools rioted (frequently) over basketball games, not human rights (it’s ok to riot over sports – ah, young people…). The odds were like 1 in a million!

Furthermore, I work in biblical studies so I’m aware of some very conservative schools. A couple weeks ago, for example, Liberty University posted a faculty position in biblical studies. Here was the entire text of the job description:

Liberty University’s hiring practices and EEO Statement are fully in compliance with both federal and state law. Federal law creates an exception to the “religion” component of the employment discrimination laws for religious organizations (including educational institutions), and permits them to give employment preference to members of their own religion. Liberty University is in that category.

Liberty can decide not to hire you based on your religion. Apparently nothing else matters in attracting applicants to this job. Either you agree with them, or you don’t. If you do, then you should apply. “You’ll find out what the job is after we hire you. It’s really the best way to ensure a quality education.”

So then, aside from a religious past that would probably have to be documented, what kind of religion does Liberty want you to have? LU has a “Statement of Faith” that must be signed and turned into HR before hire. Here is what you will need to affirm in order to teach math or chemistry, or to study them when you attend.

Cosmology, Geology, and Evolutionary Biology Have All Independently Reached False Conclusions Using the Scientific Method

The universe was created in six historical days and is continuously sustained by God; thus it both reflects His glory and reveals His truth. Human beings were directly created, not evolved, in the very image of God.”

In other words, there is no academic freedom if you teach in scientific fields, nor is there academic freedom if you teach the Bible and want to teach any of the host of reading methodologies that do not affirm LU’s statement. Similar is Cedarville University in Ohio:

“We believe that the Scriptures provide a literal and historical account of God’s creation of all things. The climax of the six days of creation was the special, immediate and personal creation of human life. The first humans, Adam and Eve, were directly created, not evolved from previous life forms.”

Closer to me, here in Illinois, is Wheaton College:

“WE BELIEVE that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race.”

Since Wheaton recently tried to fire Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor, for a Facebook post affirming that Christians and Muslims worship the same God (she ultimately chose not to return), you can bet this is enforced. In fact, earlier in Wheaton’s statement:

“The statement also defines the biblical perspective which informs a Wheaton education. These doctrines of the church cast light on the study of nature and man, as well as on man’s culture.”

“…the study of nature.” Shorter University (GA) includes this issue as well:

“The historical account of creation found in Genesis declares that God is the personal and direct Creator of all that exists, including the first humans Adam and Eve, from whom all human beings have come.”

Others could be listed. There is a religious dimension to this position, of course: some Christian sects do refute evolution and scientific conclusions about cosmic history outright. But this is also a political issue, and its imposition on students and faculty is meant to further an anti-scientific perspective.

Infidels Will Be Punished

At the end of Liberty’s SOF:

“We affirm that the return of Christ for all believers is imminent. It will be followed by seven years of great tribulation, and then the coming of Christ to establish His earthly kingdom for a thousand years. The unsaved will then be raised and judged according to their works and separated forever from God in hell. The saved, having been raised, will live forever in heaven in fellowship with God.”

There are a couple things to note here. First, believing that Christ’s return is imminent has been used to justify ignoring environmental disasters (although the attribution to James G. Watt, Secretary of the Interior under Reagan, of the quote, “After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back,” to justify weak environmental policy, is some leftwing bullshit; he did, however, answer a question about his views on preserving natural resources for future generations by saying, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns,” later clarifying that it could be another 2,000 years — no, seriously, he really doesn’t know).

Second, SOFs end with how badly it will turn out for infidels with an odd consistency. At Liberty it is only that they are “separated forever from God in hell.” At Wheaton, it is “the everlasting punishment of the lost.” At Baylor (TX), God will “consign Satan and his followers to hell.” At Grand Canyon University (AZ), “those who are lost” will be raised “unto the resurrection of damnation.” Back at Cedarville, “Unbelievers will suffer judgment and eternal punishment in the lake of fire.” There are more, of course, and it isn’t like this is a political or anywhere new belief. It’s not even a rare Christian one. It’s just an oddly pessimistic point to end with, setting up an opposition between the believer and the unbeliever. It aligns with another consistent point in SOFs, that only through the Holy Spirit can one live a good life (i.e. don’t believe in the Holy Spirit in the Trinitarian way advocated by these SOFs – I’m looking your way, Muslims, Jews, and 4/5 of humanity – and you must be morally defunct). When the focus is relishing on the punishment of non-believers, the attitudes some people may have toward atheists, Muslims, or Jews is no surprise.

No Abortion, Homosexuals, Transgender Students, Unmarried Faculty, or Social Dancing!

Clearly reading Liberty’s SOF led me to look at SOFs at other schools. Many of them take the time to comment on sexuality and other ethical issues. Baylor makes people affirm that “sex is intended by God solely for marriage between one man and one woman.” By complete coincidence, this happens to be a major political issue right now.

Cedarville affirms:

“Human life, sexual identity and roles are aspects of God’s creative design. From creation, marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman that should be marked by sexual purity, by sacrificial male leadership, and by recognizing the divine blessing of children, including preborn children.”

In other words, you’re not transgender, men should lead, and women should have lots of babies because, in part, abortion is bad. Anything political there?

Taylor University (IN) affirms that “each person is known by God and knit together in the womb with intentional design” (no abortion, no transgender people) before adding:

“Certain behaviors are expressly prohibited in Scripture and therefore are to be avoided by all members of the community. They include theft, lying, dishonesty, gossip, slander, backbiting, profanity, vulgarity, crude language, sexual immorality (including adultery, homosexual behavior, premarital sex and involvement with pornography in any form), drunkenness, immodesty of dress and occult practice.”

“Immodesty of dress.” You won’t have to wear a hijab, specifically, because that’s just un-American, but we get where those guys’re going with those things, you know?

Tennessee Temple University SOF is thorough:

“The gift of gender is thus part of the goodness of God’s creation … In the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography. We should work to provide for the orphaned, the needy, the abused, the aged, the helpless, and the sick. We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death. Every Christian should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly loveMarriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is God’s unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel of sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race. The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation. Children, from the moment of conception, are a blessing and heritage from the Lord.”

Whatever your positions on these points, they are very clearly social and political issues. In order to attend or to work at TTU, you have to take religious, and coincidentally political, positions against LGBTQ persons, abortion, and feminism. Oh, and you have to want to bring “industry, government, and society as a whole” under the sway of these positions.

Calvary University (MO) similarly goes on for a while:

“God created human beings distinctly as male and female. The distinctness, complementarity, and relational nature of the human race as “male and female” is based on the created order given by God when He created humanity “in His image”, and these establish a normative connection between biological sex and gender. The created distinctness, complementarity, and relational nature also establish the basis for the marital relationship as being between one man and one woman. The Bible affirms two options or giftings for sexual expression: monogamous marital relations between one man and one woman, or sexual celibacy, if one is not in a monogamous marital relationship between one man and one woman. Within these two Biblical designs there can be found sexual fulfillment, whereas outside these two designs sexual expression is improper. The Bible affirms that human sexuality is a gift to be treasured and enjoyed, as is sexual celibacy. The fall of humanity corrupted human sexuality in both spiritual and physical ways, and one result is confusion and pain in the lives of those who struggle with brokenness regarding gender, and who struggle with the guilt of desiring sinful expressions of sexuality.”

At least transgender and non-heteronormative people are acknowledged, although one has to believe they are wrong, confused, broken, and guilty.

Spring Arbor University (MI) and Warner University (FL) include affirmations of monogamous heterosexual marriage also, and more could be added. Bob Jones University’s (SC) SOF reads like a book, and goes on at length on these topics. At Judson University (IL), near me, students must sign a statement including the following before enrolling:

“Any form of sexual immorality—including, but not limited to, premarital sex, adultery, homosexual behavior and the use of pornography is prohibited… Compliance with regulations in the Judson University Student Handbook, and with the directions of university personnel, is expected. Please be aware of the views of the university regarding social dancing, profanity, chapel attendance, dorm behavior, freshmen curfews etc., as well as local, state and federal laws.”

I just like that “social dancing” is included. That’s a rule I can get behind. I mean, not literally. I wouldn’t literally “get behind” the rule, because that sounds like some really inappropriate social dancing, but… sorry. Actually, they didn’t say what their views on social dancing were, just to be aware of them. Is it required? Then I don’t want to go to Judson anymore!

Social Pressure vs. Institutional Pressure

What should be noticed is that these SOFs are obligatory to faculty or students. Violating them can mean expulsion or termination. Consider the following examples:

Wheaton College: “The doctrinal statement of Wheaton College, reaffirmed annually by its Board of Trustees, faculty, and staff, provides a summary of biblical doctrine that is consonant with evangelical Christianity.”

Cedarville University: “Each faculty member and employee (full-time and part-time) is required to sign initially, and annually thereafter, the following Doctrinal Statement as a condition of employment. The members of the Board of Trustees confirm their commitment to the University’s theological foundation by signing the statement annually also.”

Tennessee Temple: “As a community of Christian believers, the Board of Trustees, administration, faculty, and staff share a common belief system that is expressed by our confession of faith.”

Judson University: “First, and as mentioned above, Judson is a conservative, evangelical, Christian university, reflecting the commitment to share God’s love through Jesus Christ throughout the world… There are ten qualities that clearly reflect how Judson University Trustees, administrators, faculty, staff, students and alumni are to live out the three foundational principles of the University’s faith identity.  The aforementioned seminal documents also include specific ways, methods and requirements relating to putting into practice the following ten qualities.

Judson may or may not use “conservative” politically, but there are certainly potential students who would understand it that way. Progressive students would be filtered out, and moderate students will feel right-leaning pressure. In any case, faculty, staff, students, or in one case, alumni are required to affirm their agreement with the points in each of the statements of faith. Some are asked to do it repeatedly. There are real, practical consequences if someone disagrees with even one point on them, and sometimes the points are political as well as religious.

Here’s where I have an issue with the attitudes towards higher education of some conservative friends and family, or towards other perceived liberal bastions (the media, the coasts, cities, etc.). If the family member I began by talking about had the same attitudes when he was 18, and for whatever reason he wanted to enroll at Berkeley, would he necessarily fit in with his classmates? No. Would he agree with the positions or the reading assignments of his professors? Probably not. But he would not be required to agree with his professors at most universities, including, I suspect, the People’s Republic of Berkeley. If he got an assignment to explain the thought of Karl Marx, he may not enjoy it. He might be obligated to demonstrate that he understood what Marx was arguing, and explications can be difficult when the assignment you want is to critique Marx, to attack him, not to explain him. He would be free to disagree with Marx as long as he made an honest effort to understand him. And if I am wrong, and there are liberal schools out there that would require his assent in some way, then they are more than balanced by the many conservative schools we have already seen.

I find the same issue when teaching the Bible, or certain religious traditions. Loyola is quite progressive, so when my students are asked to explain the (pretty sexist) household codes in the deutero-Paulines, they probably do not enjoy it. Nonetheless, it is something that I as their teacher may feel is important to understand from the writer’s first century perspective, and to understand how these views are understood from a 21st century perspective, a perspective they may not agree with.

So he might feel some social pressure at a Berkeley. He may wish he were in a place where he could wear a #MAGA hat in peace while still having lots of friends and getting a quality degree. In other words, he would want a safe space where he is not triggered by the opinions of liberal students and faculty. It’s a reason to go to UGA, or to Clemson, or to UVA – any one of the quality conservative campuses around the country. And if he were really passionate about conservative Christian beliefs, he could always go to one of the schools mentioned above.

But he would not be obligated to agree with positions he opposed at a liberal campus. At the many conservative schools with SOFs like the ones above (these results came from just the first four pages of a Google search, and I didn’t use all of them), he could be reprimanded or expelled. Potential professors or advisors or groundskeepers could be reprimanded or fired for posting a picture of themselves at a gay wedding on social media, or for living with someone they are not married to, or for doubting the inerrancy of the Bible. I can imagine there are liberal schools out there, for example, that affirm the right to gay marriage. Yet a conservative could continue to oppose gay marriage and teach physics at one of these institutions – after all, physics has nothing to do with sexuality. But a progressive physics teacher applying to one of these conservative campuses would not make it past the front gate. Or if they ever outed themselves as pro-gay marriage, they would be quickly sacked. It’s not a matter of social pressure, it’s the actual policy.

As a counterpoint, one might bring up cases like Keith Fink’s, an adjunct at UCLA who says he was fired for having conservative views. Fox News loved the story. But according to internal communications and his fellow faculty, no one ever told him his political views were the reason, he just assumes they were without evidence. In the meantime, according to his evaluations, Fink did not attend department meetings or functions, so nobody knew him. That’s not generally a good idea. He refused both the Chair and the Vice Chair as evaluators – the latter before he had even met Fink – because he preemptively thought he would be persecuted for his views. Fink also seemed to spend an inordinate amount of class time attacking UCLA administration. Now, I don’t know what the issues are, so I might agree with Fink wholeheartedly on his criticisms. Yet someone in his tenuous position should expect, right or wrong, that the administration might not react well to them (no matter which political flavor his views have), and apparently they tolerated it for multiple terms before it appeared in his evaluation, which also noted, by the way, “I believe Mr. Fink clearly has a right to express those views, especially in a class on the topic of free speech.” In other words, Fink believed the same bullshit as many other conservatives do, that universities are by nature far-left, so he could not believe that his performance had anything to do with his firing. It’s possible that everyone else is lying, that he was “really” fired for being conservative. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence, but who needs that? If he was, at the very least his administration had to concoct all of these lies (again, over the course of several terms) to get him fired. His firing would be a failure of the system meant to protect him. If he had expressed any progressive views at Liberty, especially while berating students in a crowded lecture hall, he’d be gone that afternoon.

Biblical studies in Chicago is really male, really white

As I’ve pointed out before, there are not a lot of women in biblical studies. Or at least that’s my impression. Then again, I might have a weird sample – maybe only Loyola is boy crazy. Or maybe Catholic universities are. So I looked at the Bible faculty at 15 Chicago area schools. As always, a more formal study is warranted: I picked these 15 more or less because I could list them off the top of my head, but they constitute a big slice of Chicago biblical studies faculty.

Altogether there were 65 tenure-track professors (no visiting professors, instructors, or lecturers were included) specializing in biblical studies (which I gathered from their publishing history). I discerned whether they were male or not, and also white or not. There is always room for error here – a survey in which they could self-identify would be preferable. However, given these caveats, I just wanted to do a spot-check of what proportion of Bible scholars was white, and what proportion was male.

Percent of Chicago biblical scholars who are (apparently) male: 74%

Percent of population who are male: 48%

Oddly, although this is grossly tilted toward men, it isn’t as bad as I thought. Granted, I work in an all-male-TT department. The year I entered doctoral studies at LUC (2011) was the last time a woman was admitted into New Testament program, the very brilliant Nelida Naveros-Cordova, now at LaRoche College in Pittsburgh. Since then, total sausage fest. Still, 74% men is heavily skewed.

Percent of Chicago biblical scholars who are (apparently) white: 86%

Percent of population who are white: 64%

Again, I work in an all-white-TT department so this isn’t terribly surprising. But there is an obvious skew toward one demographic.

Over 60% are both, i.e. white men (rough population ratio, 31%).

Only three Chicago biblical scholars were neither white, nor men: Stephanie Bukhanon Crowder and Seung Ai Yang at Chicago Theological Seminary, and Elizabeth Sung at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

There are some factors that contribute to this skew:

More conservative churches, and the colleges they run, are unlikely to encourage women to go into biblical studies – women shouldn’t have authority over men and all that. Since colleges connected to these churches are likely to hire from within their own tradition, they are also more likely to hire men. But what about more progressive departments, which are still heavily skewed male? And why so white?

This may have to do with privilege. It takes roughly 11 or 12 years to work through a PhD in biblical studies, often longer. During that time, working full time is rough if not impossible, and one may accrue quite a bit of student debt through undergraduate and master’s degrees that may be unfunded. Someone needs to have the ingrained confidence that he or she will be all right financially, that the system will eventually work for them, even with a twelve year break from building wealth. This may be a feeling that white men are more likely to have than others, given the (longstanding) distribution of wealth in America. I know, for example, my wife’s family, who are first generation immigrants, views me as a bit silly and irresponsible for pursuing work in this field without the promise of significant financial gain at the end of my studies. If the economy or the political situation ever hits the fan, she will have accrued wealth and valuable skills as a medical doctor. I will be able to read several dead languages and to voice strong opinions on teaching strategies. In other words, my wife will be welcomed by societies that need her skillset, and I will be digging ditches. As a privileged person, there is simply no tangible reality to this threat, whereas for someone who knows, or whose family knows, that economies can fail, or can fail to work for us, the threat is much more real. The uncertainty and financially unrewarding nature of academics may be more likely a deal-breaker. This may be (maybe) why the doctoral applicant pool to LUC got a lot whiter and a lot dudier when the recession hit.

I’m not arguing against white guys in biblical studies. I am one, and I’m the bee’s knees (or so I tell myself). But non-white and/or non-cisgendered-male people bring important new perspectives to the field, and their inclusion combats the cultural isolation that biblical studies imposes on itself. The field is significantly skewed, and many would think it is as it should be. For those who don’t, however, it is worth taking the time to spot-check what the actual numbers are from time to time.


In which I Arbitrarily Blame René Girard for All the Mimetic Desire in Movies: Thoughts on Mimesis, Movies, and Media: Violence, Desire, and the Sacred, Volume 3


So I just completed a draft of a review of Mimesis, Movies, and Media for Reviews in Religion and Theology. The book is a collection of essays applying René Girard’s philosophy of mimetic desire to popular media (mostly movies and TV shows). Briefly put, Girard focuses on mimetic desire – we want what others want, which leads to rivalry (when we both can’t have it), which leads to violence. I teach my religious studies students about Girard’s model of scapegoating rituals, which ties into mimetic violence when it spirals out of control. At a certain crisis point, an arbitrary victim is chosen who is loaded with all of the evils thought to be causing the crisis, and violence is direct at him/her as a unifying (we all hate that MF) and stabilizing act (our violence is directed at the victim, not at each other). Mimesis, Movies, and Media serves as an introduction to Girard’s ideas of mimetic desire, and might serve as a good text for an undergraduate course integrating philosophy and media studies.

The essays are generally good, but there are a few that stand out:

Paul Dumouchel looks at the Kubrick and Spielberg film A.I., asking how the film communicates to the audience that the robot boy, David, loves his “mother,” and has already become human. It is not by exhibiting emotion, which many of the other robots also do. Unsurprisingly it is through mimetic desire, whether he is imitating a model of love programmed into him, or directly imitating his mother’s biological son when he returns home. This imitation leads to rivalry, which quickly escalates to violence. David is just too similar – aesthetically (he is not a toy like Teddy, or plastic looking like Gigolo Joe) and emotionally – forcing a choice between two sons for the family.

Although I’ve enjoyed Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, Carly Osborn will have me watching it in a very different light. She traces the downplaying of mimetic desire in Lee’s adaptation from book to film, in order to lower conflict and make the characters more attractive to the audience. Essentially, while Rick Moody’s book builds to a crisis in an ugly, almost diseased world, Lee creates a nostalgic, romanticized coming of age story. The woman I used to watch The Ice Storm with grew up in the 70s, and reading Osborn’s essay, a flood of memories came back of her experiencing that nostalgia as we watched. I wonder how much of my own enjoyment of the movie mimetically fed off of hers.

And Peter Y. Paik examines The Cabin in the Woods, specifically (spoilers) why the two intended sacrifices refuse to kill each other to save the world at the end. To remind you, Cabin features five college students who think they are in the middle of a horror movie situation as a family of zombies picks them off, one by one, only to find out that the whole scenario has been crafted by a high-tech agency as a spectacle for ancient gods living under the earth. If the sacrifices do not happen as scripted, the gods wake up and the world ends. Paik argues that when the youngsters are faced with the violence that maintains the stability of their world, they fall into a state of “impotent self-hatred” and give up too easily. He likens this to similar realizations about capitalism, and it is easy to generate parallels: the disillusionment that came to many young people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline when they were met with violence from corporate and government interests working together, or the scapegoating of poor people, black people, Latino people for the failures of capitalism to create a just society, and the (often homicidal) violence done to them in response.

I do have some minor criticisms, not of particular essays but of tendencies appearing throughout the volume.

One weakness is consistent throughout: the mimetic assimilation of “philosopher voice.” At the outset, the editors present the contributors as “priests and postmodernists, couch potatoes, theorists and humorists, of different ages, institutional affiliations, and disciplinary orientations” (p. 3). They go on: “There is also perhaps an Australian flavor to be discerned in this collection, as it approaches topics of high importance with a light touch.” Unfortunately, I did not hear such diversity in the voices of the authors. They all more or less sound like philosophical essays. This means using adjectives like “problematic” as nouns, turning nouns into verbs, and adjectivizing (see, I can do it too) names, like Girardian or, in an analysis of the show Dexter, Dexterian.

This homogenous voice may be a defense against the embarrassment some of these authors show at applying philosophy to such low art as popular media. It begins with the “Introduction,” which takes the time to defend the volume’s examination of films and TV: “we can allow – or hope – that our interpretive lenses are able to incorporate more than words on a page, allowing us to countenance the idea that high ideas may come in putatively low forms” (p. 2). Dumouchel seems to credit any insights to the more philosophically reputable Stanley Kubrick rather than the populist Steven Spielberg, including the ending, which was already in the treatment left by Kubrick and which has its defenders. Joel Hodge limits his examination of superhero films mainly to the Nolan Batman series, with a few nods to Superman and Spider-Man. This leaves him forcing examples out of Batman that don’t really fit his thesis, while ignoring or unaware of much more apt examples from other superhero movies. Paolo Diego Bubbio begins with a half-page defense of his choice to contribute his essay that includes this characterization of (one imagines) his supposed critics: “when philosophy and intellectual analysis [as opposed to dumbass analysis?] come to focus on popular culture phenomena, such as comics, movies, and TV programs, they are regarded as trivializing ideas and as committing themselves to marginal and eventually unimportant work” (p. 171; emphasis added). Bubbio rightly disagrees, even getting a small snap in at these imagined critics with a well-placed parenthesis: “In a Mad Men scene that (no irreverence intended) has an almost Dostoyevskian flavor…” (p. 181; adjectivizing!). The self-marginalization of theologians and philosophers, the two biggest contributing fields to this volume, is bad enough already. You don’t need to apologize for applying your skills to works that normal humans actually care about. In fact, next time you should include video games, which are a fantastic source for the analysis of mimetic desire and rivalry leading to violence, especially online games. It’ll make your colleagues’ heads explode!

A More Fluid Tool for Textual Criticism? A Really Sloppy Test Case with John 1:34

So I’m debating whether to develop a project down the line dealing with text criticism (external evidence at least), and I want to put this idea out there and see if anyone thinks it might be fruitful.

Basically the problem has to do with the dating of manuscripts. First, dates inherently include margins of error, whether from carbon-dating, paleography, or other variables. These may be wide, hidden in that “circa.” Second, not all scholars working directly on dating the manuscripts agree with each other on how to narrow things down. One thinks the handwriting looks second century, another fourth. The use of the nomina sacra points one way, the binding on the papyrus another. It seems like the general solution is to pick the most convincing from among arguments which, without the manuscripts in hand (and the proper training), it may be difficult to judge. If we are qualified, it may be the case that the handwriting leans one way and the binding another — we should not dismiss the variance suggested by the data we have.

Granted, if the datings range from 150 to 400, some scholars may be bound to be right, and others wrong. But there is no way of deciding that without more data. It becomes an arbitrary choice between Type I and Type II errors.

And when we pick the dating we prefer, we tend to artificially narrow it down. A dating of 175-225 in the original study becomes ca. 200, which then becomes rigid as it is cited and cited again.

But think about two manuscripts with datings of 175-225, but with different readings. You might find scholars who say, “Both readings are equally as old.” But by the estimates, there could be 50 years or more separating the two. And think about the Church Fathers writing in those years: Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian… These were theologically and scripturally active decades where fights were being fought over the authority of Scripture on a number of important points. The critical change could easily have happened within that 50-year span.

Is there not a more comprehensive, nuanced way to look at the transmission of readings in the various manuscripts that testify to them?

What I’m thinking of working on is a way to aggregate the various studies done on manuscripts to get a more fluid idea about how prevalent a reading was at a given time. Here is one really, really sloppily done example.

John 1:34 gives three different readings, in which John the Baptist testifies that Jesus is:

  • God’s Son (ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ)
  • God’s Chosen One (ὁ ἐκλεκτὸς τοῦ θεοῦ)
  • Chosen Son (electus filius)

Each reading has its defenders, and no particular internal argument has won the day. Even English versions give different readings: CEV, KJV, NASB, and NRSV give “Son of God,” while NIV and NLT have “God’s Chosen One.” One appears in p66, the other (apparently) in p75, both of them early.

I took 17 early manuscripts (dated no later than the 7th century), and (again very sloppily) aggregated the various datings for each manuscript. The more diverse conclusions, or the fewer studies, the wider the margins of error. The result I got was this:

John 1 34

Does this make sense to people?

I should highlight that these levels of prevalence have margins of error that are wider the earlier on we look, so this would have to be refined to show that. But despite the similar dating of the earliest manuscripts for “Son” and “Chosen,” “Son” aggregates higher early on. One thing I found interesting is that “Chosen” seems to increase until it is almost 45% of the evidence around 270, when “Son” gets as low as 53%. It’s at this point, when the two readings are close to 50/50, that the conflation, “Chosen Son,” begins to rise. This would seem to suggest that Chosen Son is indeed a conflation and not the original reading, created (or gaining popularity) in response to the likelihood of seeing manuscripts of both types.

Does that sound like a fruitful way to look at this?

Other things to look at potentially:

  • Refining this data, drawing in later manuscripts as well and addressing margins of error in these estimates.
  • Comparing, for example, the Western text to the population or to another group of texts.
  • Using this to test readings against turning point dates (i.e. manuscripts we are, say, 90% sure are prior to 270 or 350 with mss we are 90% sure are later — is there a significant difference in their reading of John 1:34? And what does this tell us?).

I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts!

Gendering Pre-Creation: Mixter Tehom and Supernatural

As it will from time to time, an interesting coincidence has just popped up between my scholarly hobbies and my “I seriously can’t think anymore, I just want to watch TV” ones. The coincidence has to do with the cultural concept of gender, and how we read that into the Genesis account, and how popular literature reflects cultural constructs.

Recently I’ve been working on a review of Teresa J. Hornsby and Deryn Guest’s Transgender, Intersex, and Biblical Interpretation for Catholic Biblical Quarterly. Hornsby and Guest present a “trans hermeneutic,” by which they pay attention to transgender issues and, more broadly, how gender is constructed in the Bible. The book is quite good — I would have even appreciated a longer volume that gave them more time to flesh out some of their ideas.

Guest contributes an essay on Genesis, “Troubling the Waters: תְּהוֹם, Transgender, and Reading Genesis Backward.” Here she lingers in the opening verses of Gen 1:1-2 to explore the potential theophany in the abyss, in the darkness. She argues that tehom, the abyss, has signs that it could be taken as a proper, personal noun: it lacks an article (it is not “the abyss,” but rather “darkness was on the face of tehom“), tehom is given anthropomorphic verbs (it crouches [Gen 49:25; Deut 33:13] and speaks [Hab 3:10]), and it takes on a role in the Genesis myth that is elsewhere played by a personification of chaos conquered by the creator god(s).

If we want to view tehom as personal, there are difficulties with assigning gender: “But תְּהוֹם is a queer noun: masculine in form, yet usually appearing as a female noun, but occasionally given a masculine suffix (e.g., “his voice” in Hab 3:10). It is, intriguingly, a gender-shifting word” (p. 25). For this reason, Guest labels the personified abyss “Mixter Tehom,” a title taken from trans communities (in place of Mr., Ms., etc.) to highlight its gender fluidity. Such fluidity is appropriate to the abyss, and to the time in which Mx. Tehom exists, prior to the gender boundaries erected later in the story. Guest’s essay then concentrates on how we can understand a God who chose to exist in communion with Mx. Tehom prior to creation — and it is really worth a read.

Other terms contribute to the fluidity and lack of precise orientation in the opening verses of Genesis. This space was “formless and void” (i.e. it required transition, transformation in order to achieve its present self), and again, “darkness” was on Mx. Tehom’s face.

This brings me to Supernatural, a goofy show about two brothers who hunt monsters, but which takes much of its mythos from the Bible. The show will feature heavily in a chapter I am writing about the use of fake biblical texts in horror, which will appear in the book, Monstrous Manuscripts. In a later season (like 37? 38? There are so many seasons of this show…), the main antagonist is the Darkness, which is released when the mark of Cain is removed from one of the brothers, who only had it so he could wield the first blade to kill Abaddon… it’s a whole thing.

The Darkness, or Amara, is God’s sister whom he (definitely male) had to sacrifice by locking her up in order to create the universe. In other words, Supernatural embraces the chaos myth while recasting it as a family drama (and introducing a dualistic, gnostic theology). The use of sibling rivalry is not surprising. In earlier seasons, Lucifer’s rebellion was written as a squabble between he and his brothers (the other archangels), brought on because God is more or less a deadbeat dad on Supernatural, and again, this whole mess began because one of the brothers had the mark of Cain (given to Cain by Lucifer, who received it from Amara… and we’re back).

What was notable to me was the genderification of the Light and the Darkness. Although God has (surreptitiously) appeared in the form of a man already, and he is referred to as Father by the angels, there is no reason to pin him down to a specific gender. Once he reduced to male (much of theology, including Psalm 22, be damned), with regard to the Darkness, the Hebrew word, חֹ֫שֶׁך, is also masculine, and one would expect a show so obsessed with brotherly conflict to embrace the possibility of writing it into the fabric of their universe. Maybe they just wanted something different. Instead the siblings, for the first time in like 83 seasons, are brother and sister.

I imagine this has something to do with presenting God (or “Chuck” – spoilers!) and Amara as opposites:

  • God is the Light, Amara is the Darkness.
  • God embraces freedom and distance, Amara wants subjugation and union.
  • God is absent and unfindable, Amara is present and easily approachable.
  • God is male, Amara is female.

There are of course differences that the writers do not impose on them. Both are straight (one downside of ret-conning Chuck as God is that God has now had sex with and then been dumped by other characters on the show), both are American, white, good-looking, able-bodied, of average height, both have typical emotionality, and both spend an inordinate amount of time in places like Nebraska. In other words, both are normal as the writers see it, so their opposition has to happen within that normality. Men and women are, to them, opposites situated within normality. So one is a man, the other a woman.

One reading of Gen 1:1-2 is considered and thought out, and the other mines the verses for another monster for its brothers to fight. I doubt Supernatural is consciously making a philosophical statement. But within this absence of thought, the show helps to reinforce not only a binary gender dynamic, but specifically binary gender opposition. Many more people will watch Supernatural season 113 on Netflix than Guest’s essay, and for them one more block will be added to an ideological wall between male and female.

The Originality of the Story of Jesus and the Adulteress (John 7:53-8:11), Part III: Internal Evidence against the PA

Math trigger warning: For the Americans — there are numbers in this post, but you don’t have to calculate any yourselves.


So far we have shown that paying attention to the proportion of unique words in a short passage like the PA shows that it is not significantly different from other undisputed Johannine passages of similar length. Stories about unique topics tend toward unique vocabulary. However, the same metric is also incapable of showing that several passages from the Synoptic gospels were not from John. It appears that unique words are not a sensitive enough, or informative enough, metric to do what we want it to. Granted neither author in the dispute appeals to unique words alone, but in concert with other observations. What we might say is that the PA continues to pass Heil’s test, unlike, say, the longer ending of Mark or a passage from Josephus. It is just that passing this test is a fairly low bar.

One problem is that it considers only unique words, and then not with any sense of proportion. For example, παραγίνομαι appears in John 8:2. It also appears one other time in John 3:23, so it is not unique to the PA, but it is hardly Johannine either. However, it appears 12 times in the Synoptic gospels. We would expect it to appear only about three times as often in the Synoptics if the proportions were equal. Indeed Luke uses the particular form, παρεγένετο, three times on its own (8:19; 11:6; 19:16). So this term would seem to be substantially more in line with Synoptic usage than Johannine.

Therefore I set out to get a sense of how the weight of each word shifted the balance of the passage. John has roughly 15,471 words, while the Synoptics have a combined 49,024. I say “roughly” because I did not do a very thorough job of vetting the count (e.g. taking into account textual variants): I copied and pasted NA28 into Word and did a word count. Still, John has about 24.1% of the words in the gospels. If its usage of a particular word is proportional, then it should appear in John about 24.1% of the time. Significantly more, and we can say that it is statistically Johannine. Significantly less, and it is statistically Synoptic. An example of a significantly Johannine word is ἐρωτῶντες in 8:7. John uses ἐρωτάω 27 times outside of this passage (55.1%), the Synoptics only 22 (44.9%). A 95% confidence interval around the sample proportion of 55.1% does not go low enough to include the population proportion of 24.1%, so John uses the verb significantly more often than the Synoptics.

I went through the words of John 7:53-8:11 and did word counts on the ones that do not appear more than 500 times in the gospels – no methodological decision, just laziness on my part. Obviously if one were to apply a method like this with more rigor, a count of every word should be done. At any rate, this turned up 76 words, with the following results:


Significantly Synoptic Words 29 38.2%
No Significant Difference 38 50.0%
Significantly Johannine Words 9 11.8%

While half the words do not swing significantly one way or the other, more than three times as many words are significantly Synoptic than are Johannine. The character of the vocabulary is more in line with the Synoptics than with typical Johannine usage. Many of the Johannine words are not terribly interesting: “again” (πάλιν), “how” (ποῦ), “no one” (οὐδείς), and “now” (νῦν). But the argument regarding these words could go either way: on the one hand, they are not typical Johannine words, but on the other hand, they are not likely to be conscious markers of style or interest. In other words, they may be terms that an author is more likely to use as a tic, and so could still be stylistically useful.

By comparison, I did the same analysis with John 2:1-12, with the following results:


Significantly Synoptic Words 24 30.4%
No Significant Difference 30 38.0%
Significantly Johannine Words 25 31.6%

Here there is one more significantly Johannine word, with the results less skewed toward the middle. The Johannine words are also more substantial: disciple, Jews, water, know (οἶδα), keep, manifest, glory, and believe are among them. “Cana” is recalled in another passage (John 4:46), indicating that where the end of John 4 goes, 2:1-12 goes with it. It also appears in 21:2, and while some would argue that John 21 is not absolutely original to John (although never absent in the manuscripts), that it connects Nathanael (1:43-51) to Cana (2:1-12) suggests that the story in question was already in the manuscript even if John 21 were added after the fact. So despite some words that are odd for John but integral to the story (wedding, mother, call, and wine among them), the Johannine words still take the lead in a substantial way.

Another way to look at these words is to actually weigh them. For example, John uses the word “house” 4 times outside of PA, while the Synoptics use it 56 times. But the Synoptics have more than three times as many words as John, so of course it might appear there more often! However, if we scale the Synoptic number back proportionally to John, then 56 would scale down to 17.67, still more than four times more often than in John. Put another way, the difference is 13.67 in favor of the Synoptics. Paying attention to absolute numbers (although scaled) gives a sense of relative weight. If John uses “Cana” twice outside of John 2:1-12 while the Synoptics never use it, and John uses οἶδα 82 times to the Synoptics’ 71 times (22.4 scaled), they are both significantly Johannine, but οἶδα is more heavily Johannine. It carries more weight.

Applying this to the vocabulary of both stories draws the following results, with a negative result leaning toward the Synoptics and a positive result toward John:


PA John 2:1-12
Total -149.7 319.4
Average -1.97 4.04
Standardized -1.63 1.94
p-value 5.37% 2.8%

The score for John 2:1-12 leans quite a bit more heavily toward John than does the PA toward the Synoptics, but the PA still leans toward the Synoptics. While the wedding at Cana has a significant result (p = 2.8%), PA is not quite significant at α = 5%. Then again, this was rather sloppily done. With more attention to detail, PA’s p-value could feasibly slip below 5%. A more refined study would be necessary before drawing any hard conclusions, but it would appear that, when taking more information about the vocabulary of each passage into account, the PA is less like John than unique words alone would suggest.


I don’t think the PA is original to John. The external evidence alone convinces me of that. If the language were more characteristically Johannine, I might agree that it was written by John’s group as part of a later addition, or at least in imitation of John in order to be fit into John. But some manuscripts of John lacking the thing would need to have gone out. Since the story floats around so much, it is more likely that it was a bit of free-floating tradition that ended up in various places in John more often than in Luke or attached to the end of the gospels.

People really love this story. It is an example of Jesus showing love and compassion to a lone woman about to have her bones literally crushed in by rocks, ganged up on by a team of people just trying to make a point. Bracketing it and putting it to the side makes them uncomfortable, and I appreciate that.

That it is not original to John is perhaps not the lesson we should take away from it. Say John was completed in the 90s, without this story. It may have survived for centuries before finding various places to be fit into John (and outside of it).

That means that the story survived for that long without the authority of being incorporated into a gospel. There were probably one-sheet versions of it floating around, but people probably just liked the story and told it to each other. They liked a story where the pronouncement was, “The one without sin should cast the first stone” — and nobody does. They liked the story despite its lack of authority, and they worked against the manuscript tradition in order to preserve the story and to give it authority.

That story does not make me uncomfortable.

The Originality of the Story of Jesus and the Adulteress (John 7:53-8:11), Part II: Testing the Metric

So in the last post we examined whether the story of Jesus and the adulteress (or PA for pericope adulterae, because we really can’t help ourselves) had significantly more words that appear nowhere else in John, relative to its length, than passages of similar length in John 2:1-12; 5:1-11; and 6:1-15. It turns out it didn’t. But I also ended that post with a question: how sensitive is this metric? Is it actually capable of differentiating between Johannine and non-Johannine passages? In other words, does it do what we want it to do?

If I were doing this more formally, I would establish methodological principles of comparison, and then apply them to find passages outside of John to test. But we can do this roughly here with a few passages from the Synoptics, and one text more or less contemporary to John and regarding Pharisees, but non-biblical: Josephus’s Jewish War.

Mark 3:20-30

This passage from Mark shows Jesus meeting a challenge from the scribes, as he does in the PA. It contains 169 words, 14 of which do not appear in John.

Matt 19:1-12

Here is another controversy story about an issue that otherwise does not come up in John: divorce. It also has the advantage of involving the Pharisees testing Jesus, as they do in the PA. It contains 213 words, 18 of which do not appear in John.

Luke 7:36-50

Here Jesus comes to the defense of another accused woman against a Pharisee in a dispute over her sexual sins. It contains 273 words, 26 of which do not appear in John.

Mark 16:9-20

In looking up the vocabulary in the PA, I noticed that some of its unique words also appear in the longer ending to Mark. This passage was probably also a later addition to a completed gospel, but relying on earlier traditions. It contains 169 words, 25 of which do not appear in John.

Josephus, Jewish War 2.3

Here is a passage from outside the New Testament, but also addressing a controversy involving the Pharisees. In this case, it regards the ongoing sacrifices in the temple during the Jewish revolt against Rome. It contains 169 words, 52 of which do not appear in John.


I ran χ2 analyses on each of these passages against the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-12), the healing of the sick man (5:1-11), the multiplication of loaves (6:1-15), and the PA, and got the following p-values:


Mark 3:20-30 Matt 19:1-12 Luke 7:36-50 Mark 16:9-20 Jos., JW 2.3
John 2:1-12 83.3% 77.5% 55.8% 2.8% < 0.001%
John 5:1-11 36.9% 32.0% 19.9% 0.7% < 0.001%
John 6:1-15 35.8% 30.0% 16.6% 0.3% < 0.001%
John 7:53-8:11 73.8% 76.9% 97.6% 9.9% < 0.001%


Bolded p-values are significant (α = 5%).

On the one hand, the metric was unable to differentiate between Johannine material and passages in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. No significant p-values appear. There is no doubt these passages are not Johannine, yet looking at otherwise unique words cannot detect it. It is worth noting that the PA finds its closest comparison with Luke, since that is the other gospel in which it appears, but for all we know this is a fluke.

On the other hand, the longer ending of Mark was found consistently distinct from undisputed Johannine passages, but not from the PA. Furthermore, the metric found highly significant differences with Josephus across the board. So the metric is not completely useless, but it is not sensitive enough to separate Synoptic material from Johannine. That is, it is incapable of doing the job it’s been put to: one scholar thinks the passage sounds Johannine enough, and another thinks it sounds too Synoptic. The metric of unique words is apparently incapable of telling the difference, so a more sensitive one is needed. This is why conjectures like the one that played out in Heil’s and Wallace’s articles — that the number of unique words in such a short passage is at least partially indicative of narrative fit — need to be tested against controls.

That might not be possible with such a short passage, but in the next post we can look at some more nuanced measures that might help.

The Originality of the Story of Jesus and the Adulteress (John 7:53-8:11), Part I: Sticking My Nose into Someone Else’s Argument

Warning: As this post analyzes a text-critical question through statistics, it is uber-geeky. I know numbers give some people the hives, so watch out.


Recently I’ve been reviewing John Paul Heil’s new commentary on John (James Clarke & Co., 2016) for Reviews in Religion and Theology. In the commentary, Heil accepts the Pericope Adulterae (or PA), the story of Jesus and the adulteress usually found in John 7:53-8:11. It is a famous story: the Pharisees pretend to stone a woman caught in adultery; Jesus steps in and demands that the one without sin cast the first stone; everyone leaves and Jesus refuses to condemn the woman as well. Thirty Helens agree it’s a great story, but the passage is not in many of the early manuscripts of John (at least not where it should be), and internally it sounds much more like a Synoptic story – with its scribes and elders, testing Jesus – than it does a Johannine story. It also forces the end of the Tabernacles debate to happen after Tabernacles has ended (cp. John 7:37), disturbing the flow of John 7-8.

Heil does not agree. It is not that he chooses to read the PA with the rest of the gospel as a longstanding part of John; he presents it as an original part of the Fourth Gospel. As is typical of the commentary, Heil provides almost no argument for this controversial position, instead giving only the following comment in a footnote (p. 61 n. 31; compare the nearly identical footnote on p. 3 n. 4 – copying and pasting is a serious problem in this book):

Although it was omitted early on in the manuscript tradition, there is strong internal evidence for considering the story in 7:53-8:11 original to the Fourth Gospel, as it fits quite well into its narrative context.

He then cites two of his own past articles on the topic. The footnote is horribly misleading about the textual history of this story, as I will note in my review. The story is not simply missing in some manuscripts: it is moved after John 7:36, or 7:44, or to the end of John, or to another gospel (Luke)!

But I wanted to check out Heil’s internal arguments (which might only explain why a copyist chose to put a free, non-Johannine story there). In his first article, Heil makes narrative arguments (how the passage adds to the story in chapters 7-8) as well as linguistic ones. In part, Heil wants to refute the idea that there are too many strange words, words that do not appear anywhere else in John, for it to be original:

To argue, as is commonly done, that our story is non-Johannine because it contains words or stylistic features not found elsewhere in John is extremely precarious for such a brief passage of only twelve verses. The use of unusual vocabulary may simply be due to the uniqueness of the story. There are other short Johannine passages, such as the healing of the man at the pool in Jerusalem (5,1-11) and the miraculous feeding (6,1-15), which also contain a number of words not found elsewhere in the gospel, yet their Johannine character is unquestioned (“The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress (John 7,53-8,11) Reconsidered,” Biblica 72/2 [1991]: 182-91, here 183, emphasis added).

Although Heil hints at a relative measure (that there are [so many?] unique words in “such a brief passage”), note the binary quality of Heil’s claim: John 7:53-8:11 contains unique words at all, but so do other passages. Therefore their argument is invalid. The quantitative element is minimized in favor of a qualitative argument about the absolute presence or absence of unique words.

In his response to Heil, Daniel Wallace (“Reconsidering ‘The Story of Jesus and the Adulteress Reconsidered’,” NTS 39/2 [1993]: 290-96) defends the popular view that the PA is not original to John. Wallace likewise flirts with quantitative analysis, first by addressing Heil’s use of other stories in John:

[T]he fact remains that, proportionately, neither John 5.1-11 nor John 6.1-15 compares favourably to John 7.53-8.11 in unique vocabulary: six words… in 5.1-11 (fifteen lines in the Nestle-Aland26 text), eleven words… in 6.1-15 (thirty lines in NA26), fourteen words in 7.53-8.11 (twenty-one lines in NA26). The pericope adulterae contains sixty-five per cent more Johannine hapax legomena, proportionately speaking, than either of the other two pericopae (p. 292).

Wallace is to be commended for looking at the proportionate number of words, but why choose words : lines in a critical edition as your metric? Why not use unique words : total words? Additionally, when lines of text are used, and there are so few, is 65% more unique words a significant increase? It could be within the margins of error, and this hasn’t been tested.

Wallace makes another important point on the next page while discussing the phrase, “sin no more,” which is only found in John 8:11 and 5:14 and nowhere else precisely:

Yet a phrase which occurs once in John can hardly be considered a Johannine feature.

Wallace has a point. If, for example, Jesus dropped an “Amen, amen I say to you” in the PA – even when the PA was moved outside of John – we might consider it much more indicative that John wrote it since the double amen never appears outside of John, and it appears 25 times in John. However, a verb that appears 25 times in John but also appears 60 times in the Synoptic Gospels wouldn’t make the same impression. So we might want a way of assessing such relative frequencies as well.

Evidently Wallace’s counter-argument was not persuasive since, 20-odd years later, Heil continues to advocate for the PA’s originality. This is probably because he finds his own arguments, qualitative and quantitative, more persuasive.

Testing the Quantitative Claims

What if instead we tested the quantitative claims quantitatively? Originally, Heil hinted at a relative measure, i.e. roughly the same number of words unique to that passage appear in John 5:1-11 and 6:1-15, yet these are considered undisputedly Johannine. Let’s formalize this a bit:


5:1-11 6:1-15 7:53-8:11 Total
Unique words 9 14 19 42
Non-unique words 148 222 186 556
Total 157 236 205 598


Running a χ2 analysis on this contingency table gives a p-value of 29.9%, an insignificant result. The p-value here: under the assumption that all of the proportions are equal, if we kept taking random samples the same size as ours, how often would we get groups with as much difference as we find here? Apparently, nearly one in three attempts would yield as much difference as we get in these three passages. None of the passages is significantly different from the others. Running them in pairs gives the following p-values:

John 5 & 6: 93.4%

John 5 & PA: 21.2%

John 6 & PA: 18.4%

While the healing of the sick man and the multiplication of loaves are remarkably more similar to each other (more than 90% of samples would have as much difference as they have even if the proportions were equal), none of the differences are close to significant. In other words, the results seem to confirm Heil’s feeling that the number is not so great as to rule out PA as Johannine.

In truth, since the PA is unique, we should probably compare it with other unique stories. The wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12) has 208 words, 16 of which are unique in John. Comparing this story with PA gives a p-value of 56.5%, again, far from significant.

So by this measure (words unique to the story compared to words used elsewhere in the same text), the PA cannot be ruled out as Johannine. Heil’s point stands. Still, is this the best metric? Certain questions can be raised, such as:

  • What kind of difference can we actually expect? None of the Johannine passages gave a significant difference, but do any? If we used a passage we know came from Mark, Matthew, or Luke – or Acts or Revelation – would any of them give a significant difference? Would a short story from Plato or Sophocles? In other words, we would have to test how sensitive the metric is. But these are critical questions that only arise once we’ve bothered to develop a metric and apply it. I will try to address these questions in the next post.
  • A metric may be more sensitive the more information it takes account of. Unique words are not the only ones that mark the PA as odd for John. For example, the word “people” (laos) appears two other times in John, so is not unique. But it appears 52 times in the Synoptic Gospels. Is there a way to take account of that? I think there is, and we will return to this question as well.

A Reason So Few Women Go into Academics?

So a little while ago, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released “Visualizing Change,” its 2016-2017 Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession. I like numbers, so I started looking over some of their tables and noticed a comparison of average salaries for men and women faculty (Table 3). One immediately notices that women’s salaries are lower than men’s. For example, comparing the salaries at Category I (Doctoral):

Men Women W/M
Professor 135,739 124,217 91.51%
Associate 97,313 91,772 94.31%
Assistant 85,816 79,959 93.17%
Instructor 64,457 60,383 93.68%
Lecturer 65,857 60,911 92.49%
No Rank 84,773 74,329 87.68%
All Combined 108,372 91,356 84.30%

Perhaps unsurprisingly, on average women consistently make less than men for the same jobs.

On the positive end, these numbers are better than the national average, around 80%.

On the neutral end, I don’t have information about other factors, such as seniority, private funding, etc. It is possible that factors outside of the universities’ control contribute to the gap, perhaps significantly.

On the negative end, after going through years of schooling, hard work, living away from friends and families (or having to make new ones in each new town), women cannot expect to be compensated as well as men.

But these numbers raised two questions for me.

First, why is the overall average less than any of the individual ranks? If the categories of “No Rank” through “Professor” made up all their data, there is no way they could all be above 87%, yet the overall average at 84%. Some seventh category must be dragging down the average. The obvious missing category is part-time faculty. Either the ratio is so low, or the number of part-time faculty so high, or some combination that the unknown category can overwhelm the combined weight of No Rank, Lecturer, Instructor, Assistant, Associate, and full Professors! Whatever the case, the percentage that part-time faculty women make of men’s salaries has to be less than 84.3%. Working at half-time, adjunct, or graduate assistant levels is already not lucrative. Since most faculty start off teaching as part-time faculty in some capacity (whether adjuncts or graduate assistants), potentially a broad swathe of women beginning their careers in academics make significantly less than their male counterparts.

Second, are things at least getting better?

I tracked comparisons of men’s and women’s salaries going back ten years (2007-2008), the first year the AAUP gives data:

All Men All Women All W/M
2007-2008 93869 73383 84.30%
2008-2009 97889 76539 78.19%
2009-2010 99074 77502 78.23%
2010-2011 100671 78862 78.34%
2011-2012 103056 80671 78.28%
2012-2013 105584 82522 78.16%
2013-2014 108101 84654 78.31%
2014-2015 110578 86770 78.47%
2015-2016 110510 92304 83.53%
2016-2017 108372 91356 84.30%

At first the results were encouraging – a steady ratio of about 78% had gone up to 84% in the last couple of years. However, that was apparently the ratio in 2008, when the recession hit. One possible inference is that, when funding was in trouble, women took the hit more heavily than men. The “dip” in ratios appeared in almost all of the individual categories except for Instructors – the lowest paid category.

Even more to the point, the dips overall were disproportionate to the dips in each category, sometimes by a margin of 12%. That means that part-time faculty was hit significantly harder by gender than full-time, enough to drag the overall percentage down even further. That part-time income would swing more wildly is not surprising – the point of having contingent labor is to be able to shed them when funding is in trouble. An adjunct teaching three classes in a semester might go down to one, a 67% drop in income. But does this suggest that women adjuncts were shed at higher rates than men? I can’t answer without more data, but it does not look good.


So are things getting better? Yes and no. The percentage right now is relatively high and increasing, but if another recession hits, or if the anti-intellectual tide in the U.S. continues to rise and funding is cut for higher education, it may be women who are hit harder than men.


Update: A friend (soon-to-be Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Siena Heights University!), Wendy Crosby, pointed out that pay is not uniform across disciplines, nor is distribution by gender. That is, women tend to go into humanities and education fields, which tend to pay less than scientific fields, which men go into more often. The relatively large dip in salaries during the recession may point to bigger cuts to humanities departments. This is not a good sign, either, but it helps to explain the discrepancy when it is harder for public institutions to vary salary greatly within a category.


How We Make Jeremiah Anti-Abortion

The Bible says nothing about abortion.

Recently, I’ve been working on a project on this silence – not on the rightness or wrongness of abortion, but on the responsibility each Christian has in choosing to believe abortion is wrong, and in crediting the Bible as their reason for thinking this. There is an odd allure to biblical passivity when it comes to controversial subjects. Saying, “It’s wrong because the Bible says so,” absolves the speaker of any culpability when a non-Christian woman suffers due to a treatable ectopic pregnancy, or a raped twelve year-old is torn apart in delivery and dies. My concern is not with establishing their culpability, but only with disallowing the idea that they did not actively participate in that moral decision.

Because I want to hear from people who definitely believe that the Bible compels their anti-abortion stance, I’ve been talking with “pro-lifers.” In several conversations, Jeremiah 1:4-5 has come up. To clarify:

NRSV Jer 1:4-5: Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

If God knew Jeremiah before he was formed (Heb: אֶצָּרְךָ֤; Grk: πλάσαι; Lat: formarem) in the womb, then Jeremiah must have been knowable, so must have had full personhood. Granted, this says nothing about abortion. However, later Jeremiah will wish that the man who announced his birth had rather “killed me from the womb” (Jer 20:17; different phrasing), effectively cursing God’s plan. Jeremiah wishes his mother’s pregnancy had been aborted. But it wasn’t, and despite his status as a prophet consecrated by God in the womb, Jeremiah’s endorsement of an abortion – even his own – does not trump God’s plans for him, and does not count as a blanket endorsement of the practice.

The argument, as anti-abortion readers of Jeremiah understand it, goes like this:

God knew Jeremiah before he was formed in the womb.

∴ Abortion is bad.

That is, the two statements are equivalent. No argument needed. But in fact, there are a number of other assumptions that need to be brought into this argument to get from point A to point B. These extra assumptions are what I want to concentrate on because they are what we as readers of the Bible contribute to it, and without those additions to the text, the argument does not hold.

Assumption 1: The positions of God stated in the Bible are authoritative. This one is a bit obvious, but important to state out loud. Christians can sometimes plop down a verse from the Bible into an argument like it’s a hidden ace, and they are dumbfounded when it doesn’t shift the argument at all. That may be because the other party doesn’t care what the Bible says. Many people don’t – it is, after all, a point of faith that the Bible has any authority, not a self-evident fact. Furthermore, some people favor some parts of the Bible more than others. Christians can dismiss whole swathes of the Law (unless they find a few they like), and Catholics often dismiss any appeal to the Old Testament. These parts aren’t really the Bible, even if they’re in there. They’re more like windows into an ancient culture. So the argument is at least:

God knew Jeremiah before he was formed in the womb.

God’s positions as depicted in the Bible are authoritative.

∴ Abortion is bad.

Assumption 2: Jeremiah 1:4-5 asserts the personhood of Jeremiah as a fetus. The line about God knowing Jeremiah in the womb comes to him at the opening of the book as Jeremiah is called to be a prophet. Jeremiah resists, but God makes it clear that this plan is in place from the past (1:4-5), in the present (1:9-10), and in the future (1:7-8): the almighty God has plans for Jeremiah. One rhetorical point of the scene is that Jeremiah is not special, but God’s power to make use of Jeremiah is. God has the power to send Jeremiah where he commands him, and to protect him. God has the power to appoint him over nations and kingdoms, “to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” And in 1:4-5, arguably, God has to power to know whom he will choose even before he is born. In other words, the line says something about God’s omniscience, his extreme foreknowledge and control over future events, rather than saying anything about Jeremiah and his personhood.

God knows all of human history completely before it happens. He can make predictions that we take to be accurate millennia in advance, before the grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents of the people involved have even met, much less conceived their ancestors. And, apparently, God knows enough to choose a prophet a few years early, even when he’s still in the womb. While we may see a unique assertion of fetal personhood, we may also quite legitimately see yet another assertion of God’s foreknowledge and planning for the future. We have to choose to assume the statement is about Jeremiah’s personhood instead of or in addition to an assertion about God’s foreknowledge.

God knew Jeremiah before he was formed in the womb.

God’s positions as depicted in the Bible are authoritative.

Jeremiah 1:4-5 asserts the personhood of Jeremiah as a fetus.

∴ Abortion is bad.

Assumption 3: Jeremiah’s personhood extends to all fetuses. In the previous point, God knowing Jeremiah in the womb (despite knowing all things at all times) and having plans for Jeremiah is viewed as evidence that Jeremiah is a full person, even unformed in the womb. It does not necessarily follow that all fetuses have the same status. Or at least, that God has plans for all fetuses that involve being born.

This sort of anti-abortion thinking is also evident in appeals to Luke 1, when the angel Gabriel voices plans for the prophet John the Baptist to his father (1:13-17). However, in Luke, John has not even been conceived yet (cf. Luke 1:24 – After (meta) those days, Elizabeth conceived…). Luke one-ups Jeremiah by making God’s foreknowledge and plans for John evident even prior to conception. So do fetuses have full personhood prior to conception? This would be a controversial argument, even to strict anti-abortionists. God having foreknowledge of his prophets even before they are conceived is not controversial at all. After all, God has foreknowledge of the birth of the Messiah centuries before his mother is even born (cf. Isa. 7:14).

What needs to be noted is that both Jeremiah and John are prophets, important ones. It makes perfect sense that God would have plans early on for people who will be responsible for communicating his word. Indeed, as Jeremiah 1 makes clear, these plans include communicating God’s word. Not everyone communicates the word of God directly. God also plans suffering for Jeremiah that will not lead to his death. Not everyone suffers as Jeremiah did, or survives such suffering. God plans for John to prepare the way for the Lord and to baptize the Messiah. Not everyone prepares the way for the Lord or baptizes the Messiah. Both Jeremiah and John are special people because God had special plans for them. It does not follow that God has a plan for everyone. We may conclude that, of course, but only because it fits our theology and our mental construction of how God works. Whole books of theology need to be written in support. Jeremiah 1:4-5 wouldn’t cut it alone. So another assumption needs to be added:

God knew Jeremiah before he was formed in the womb.

God’s positions as depicted in the Bible are authoritative.

Jeremiah 1:4-5 asserts the personhood of Jeremiah as a fetus.

Jeremiahs’s personhood extends to all fetuses.

∴ Abortion is bad.

Assumption 4: God’s plans for fetuses necessarily include gestation and birth. In the specific case of Jeremiah, God’s plans for him required his gestation and birth, as well as entering adulthood, so he could fulfill his role as a prophet. All three elements are required. Yet when we talk about God’s plans for all fetuses, we only include gestation and birth. This is because children die, and we say this is God’s plan. Or because humans, once they are born, make bad decisions and act against God’s plans for them (and so may die), but fetuses are incapable of sin or disobedience – they are innocent – so they should at least get through birth. Nonetheless, Jeremiah couldn’t have been killed by a lion at the age of three, or caught in a fire at 11, or mugged and stabbed at 13. He couldn’t, because God’s plans for Jeremiah did not involve him dying as a child. God does not have such positive plans for all of us, at least the ones who die of SIDS, or leukemia, or car accidents. God may not have wanted those children to die the way they did, but he did not protect them either, because his plans, whatever they were, did not involve their survival into adulthood.

But the Bible goes further, depicting God killing populations that included pregnant women. There is no assertion in Genesis that nobody was pregnant when the flood came, or in Exodus that no pregnant women died in the plagues or even that the firstborn infant sons of the Egyptians had sinned when God slaughtered them, or in Joshua that no pregnant women were in Jericho. There are now over seven billion people in the world: when God kills a third of humanity (Revelation 9), do we really assume none of those 2.3 billion people is pregnant? We may, but it’s not in the text. God’s plan for all of those fetuses is to die still in the womb, and not always as punishment. The Egyptian fetuses die because one man, the Pharaoh, resists God – on at least four occasions because God forces Pharaoh to resist in order to play out the drama he had planned involving the ten plagues (Exod 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10)! Evidently, God does not have positive plans for all fetuses. God having positive plans for all fetuses is our (somewhat anti-biblical) assumption, and one that is necessary to the argument:

God knew Jeremiah before he was formed in the womb.

God’s positions as depicted in the Bible are authoritative.

Jeremiah 1:4-5 asserts the personhood of Jeremiah as a fetus.

Jeremiah’s personhood extends to all fetuses.

God’s plans for fetuses necessarily include gestation and birth.

∴ Abortion is bad.

Assumption 5: Abortion is a form of murder. So far, Jeremiah is a full person in the womb; his personhood can be extended to all fetuses, for which God has plans that necessarily involve gestation and birth. Therefore abortion not only goes against God’s plans for the fetus (as you will hear in some arguments), it does so in the worse way possible: murder. This is an important distinction because many anti-abortion activists have no problem undermining God’s plan for a fetus by denying pre-natal care to the mother, or by stressing her by worrying whether she will lose her job when she is forced to go back to work a week after it’s born, or about how she’s going to pay for diapers, daycare, doctors’ visits. God has positive plans for the child, but I don’t have to help with those plans… as long as I don’t kill it directly! It is an odd sort of argument to make, but I see it often online and implicitly in some of these conversations.

It is not obvious that murder would be the crime here, even if God knew Jeremiah before he was formed (Lat: formarem) in the womb. At least it wasn’t obvious to Saint Augustine. Despite being firmly anti-abortion himself, while interpreting Exod 21:22-23, Augustine states categorically that (accidentally) forcing an abortion (abortum compelleretur) in a woman when the fetus was not formed (non formatum) should not be considered a homicide (homicidum) because the fetus is not yet reckoned as a person (nec hominem deputavit). It is not that Augustine is unfamiliar with Jeremiah, but evidently he did not think to connect the two and allow Jeremiah to counter the claim in LXX Exod 21:22-23 that the death of an unformed fetus is not covered by the principle, “a life for a life.” Augustine would agree a crime was committed, just not murder.

Again, it is not to say that one is wrong to view the intentional death of a fetus as murder, only that Jeremiah 1 is incapable of making that point for you. The position originates with you, and perhaps your mental reconstruction of which verses from other books are relevant and how to read them, not with Jeremiah:

God knew Jeremiah before he was formed in the womb.

God’s positions as depicted in the Bible are authoritative.

Jeremiah 1:4-5 asserts the personhood of Jeremiah as a fetus.

Jeremiah’s personhood extends to all fetuses.

God’s plans for fetuses necessarily include gestation and birth.

Abortion is a form of murder.

∴ Abortion is bad.


The argument is not a simple equivalency of one statement in the Bible to a political, ethical position of modern day Christians. Instead, a complex argument needs to be formed with a number of assumptions brought in by the reader. Each of these assumptions could be complicated even more. Since we choose to bring these assumptions in or not, we are responsible for the argument formed. We are active creators of a position on abortion that has real consequences for fetuses and for women in the real world. We cannot pass ourselves off as passive recipients of a biblical command. Often, we are only passive recipients of someone else’s interpretation, which is not itself the word of God. People choose to take their positions on abortion, while believing they have passively accepted a position clearly stated in the Bible. It is only responsible to question critically that narrative, and to highlight the active role Christians take in choosing to oppose access to abortion as well as to support it.