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.

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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.

Conclusion

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.

 

MWSBL 2017

The annual Midwest regional meeting of the SBL was held this past weekend at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN.

Obviously I just kept thinking: this is where Rudy went!

I don’t have much to say because I was “that guy”: showed up for my first presentation, had lunch, did my second presentation, and left. Like a jerk. But to be fair, on the front end I forgot about the time zone difference so I got there an hour late. On the back end, I had to get back to Chicago for birthday shenanigans!

I was upset to get there late because I missed Loyola PhD candidate Najeeb Haddad’s paper on Mark, “The Pre-Markan Apotheosis and the Markan Resurrection: Mark 16:1-8.” However, a scholar who attended complimented the paper and Najeeb’s delivery. On the other hand, I got to have a nice conversation with Edmondo Lupieri, Charles Cosgrove, and Richard Choi about ancient Greek musical scales and the notation they used to record music. Cosgrove mentioned a group called Lyravlos that apparently does a good job of interpreting the music. There evidently exists a third century Christian hymn out there performed by the group if you feel like searching.

My first paper was in the Apocalyptic section. Russell Sisson presented a paper, in quite the seminarial style, on what I might call the anti-apocalypticism of Q (a hypothetical source for Matthew and Luke) and Jubilees, a pre-Christian Jewish re-writing of the Torah. Both appeal to the image of Noah (the Flood) and Lot (the destruction of Sodom) to describe the final judgment, but more as an appeal to repent than as a predestined outcome for certain groups. I enjoyed the session quite a bit.

My paper was on Isaac Newton’s apocalyptic dualism, applied more narrowly to time. I argued that the appeal to Absolute Time vs. Apparent Time in the Principia may go beyond theoretical duration vs. practical measurements of duration, as it is interpreted by scientific Newton scholars. If Absolute Time can be identified with the spiritual or heavenly time of Newton’s apocalyptic writings, then it may radically alter how we read some parts of his physics. The reception was warm and I got some excellent questions in response. I also have to thank Gabriele Boccaccini for letting me borrow his laptop for the slide show!

By the way, LUC doctoral student Scott Brevard also gave a paper in the second Early Christian Gospels section, entitled, “Spirits Unclean and Foreign: The Divided Demonology of Luke and Acts,” that I was sad to miss.

At lunch I joined the Loyola table (along with George Heider of Valparaiso), where I got to meet LUC’s new OT guy, Tom Wetzel (I’m a bit out of the loop as an adjunct who lives on the other side of town…). I also noticed that, of the four LUC grads at the table, I was the only guy. The other doctoral student in my cohort was a woman, but they haven’t had a NT woman since her, six years ago. Get it together, Loyola!

In the first afternoon session, I presented in the Early Christian Gospels section. Loyola was basically running things in ECG this year, because in the later section new NT faculty, Christopher Skinner presented a paper rooted in one of his larger projects on Johannine ethics, “Ethics in/of the Johannine Literature: Recent Scholarly Opinion and Prospects for the Future,” and in Sunday’s session LUC alumnus Olegs Andrejevs presented, ““This Generation” in Q: Engaging a Phantom Opponent.” They must be doing something right up there in Rogers Park :).

In my session, Bob Burcham presented on “Time in the Fourth Gospel: History, Theology, and Message,” although I think he changed the title for the presentation. It’s important that he commented on how different perceptions were prior to the resurrection from after it, so that the division of time cannot be collapsed or ignored. I presented on the testimonial character of John’s excessive use of oida in John 9, and how it allows us to read the note about kicking confessors of Christ out of synagogues as less religious persecution, more under-the-table witness intimidation, a common trope in forensic literature of the time. The questions were great (we went a bit over time), and Teresa Calpino pointed me to potential avenue of investigation that I hadn’t considered (so thanks, Teresa!). After me, Bruce Brooks presented on a metric he’s developed to differentiate word usage in order to argue that John 16-17 were added later than John 15. It was intriguing, but I would want to look more closely at his methodology, and my question about how to measure the significance of differences between measures (comparing John 15 and 16 gives 0.54, John 16 and 17 gives 0.43, but 15 and 17 gives 0.46 – why is this a reason to pair of 16 and 17? Are there margins of error, and how do we construct them?) went unanswered, although it is easy to misunderstand a question when you’re put on the spot.

I wish I could have stayed longer, because I enjoyed the few hours I was there.

Excellent Address of the Problems with the Academic Field of Humanities

A friend shared this on facebook, and I wanted to share it here (and there). The author and winner of the Truman Capote Award, Kevin Birmingham, discusses the impact of adjunctification on scholarship – in his case in literature, but many of the patterns he notes occur also in biblical and theological studies.

Working at more than one school? Check. (Up to three at a time so far).

Median pay of $2,700 per course? Check. (Although Loyola Chicago does pay more and goes out of its way to create a good environment for its adjuncts, at least in theology).

Donations going to athletics rather than faculty? Not at my current schools, but as a graduate of a Big Ten school (MSU) and an SEC school (UGA), I’ve definitely seen it — Saturdays where the library was not open because they could not afford the staff to manage a flood of drunk football fans; religion classes taught in uncomfortably small, outdated classrooms while the university spends thousands repairing the grounds after tailgating. Most athletic programs lose money for the school, and even with a high profit football program like UGA or MSU, they yield a net loss when the money is distributed to other athletic programs and infrastructure. They will never want for money due to a simple restriction of flow: athletic money is athletic money, but academic money is not just academic money — it’s also athletic money when the football team (or basketball team) needs it. The counter-argument is that athletics draws in undergrads in a competitive market and alumni donations (when they are not made directly to the athletic department). I would appreciate greater transparency on this, though, and greater scholarly critique.

All of this warrants further discussion down the line, but the end result is that the current career model in the humanities depends on producing too many PhDs in the field, only training them/encouraging them into faculty positions which there won’t be enough of, then building a surplus pool of adjuncts who are cheap and who can be let go at a moment’s notice if the school needs to shift money away from the department. This is not accidental or simply the result of a bad economy (10 years ago). While I knew this going in, I’m also lucky to have other options. Few others are, and the more undergrads and grad students know about the academic field before they spend the years and money becoming qualified to work in it, the better.

The Cost of Philosophy (in Illinois)

Since nothing else of note is going on today…

Earlier I looked at the availability of biblical studies at colleges and universities in Illinois. 31 of the 62 schools I surveyed offered courses in biblical studies as part of a religion or theology department. However, since these 31 schools are often smaller, private schools, only 32% of students in Illinois are in a position to actually take a course in biblical studies.

Today I want to compare these results with another field: Philosophy. This subject would probably be a better point of comparison for theology proper, but still a fair point of comparison with biblical studies, also in the humanities.

Here is what I found:

 

  Philosophy (Bible)
Schools offering philosophy courses 60 (96.8%) 31 (50%)
Percent of students at these schools 99.03% 32.30%
Schools offering philosophy majors 40 (64.5%) N/A
Percent of students at these schools 44.07% N/A
Ave. cost/school with philosophy courses $23,482.41 $30,130.91
Ave. cost/school without philosophy courses $24,620.00 $16,907.30
Ave. cost/student at schools with phil. $13,945.81 $25,470.70
Ave. cost/student at schools without phil. $31,651.91 $8,985.91

What this means:

  • All but two schools offer at least a course in philosophy, and almost 2/3 offer a philosophy major.
  • Since those two schools are rather small (less than 6,000 undergrads combined), over 99% of students in Illinois can take a philosophy course. However, since schools offering philosophy majors also tend to be on the small end, only 44% of students can major in philosophy.
  • Schools that offer philosophy courses are actually less expensive than schools that don’t, although the difference is not significant. The same goes for average cost per student, where avoiding philosophy is almost $18,000 more expensive! Cost is simply not a barrier to studying philosophy in the way that it is for biblical studies and theology.

Philosophy as a field has its own issues, and apparently they have been moving toward more non-tenure track positions for a while now. But these positions are still full-time, and at any rate more students have access to philosophy, whether it is historical philosophy, logic, or what have you.

While students may still gripe about taking a philosophy course if they are not interested, it is much less likely that people will question whether a college/university should offer these courses. Although the Bible influences contemporary thought to a similar if not greater extent than ancient and pre-modern philosophies, there is an uncritical assumption that the theological, ethical, and philosophical ideas of, say, Aristotle are more relevant to students than the theological, ethical, and philosophical ideas of Isaiah, or John, or Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas. If biblical scholars and theologians are not willing to question that assumption, then they participate in their own marginalization.

Food, Sex, and the Changing Rules for Both in Christianity

Since this has come up a couple times already, and in response to the apparent use of 1 Corinthians 8 to support discrimination against LGBTQ people…

Sex and Food

So I want to say something about how American Christianity addresses non-normative sexualities, but in order to do that I am going to say something about food.

This may seem like taking the long way around the barn, but it is at least a small barn. After all if your inner eighth grader is anything like mine, he will point out that both discussions are to an extent about what is proper to put in your mouth. But the association goes back to the Bible. Paul discusses marriage, chastity, and prostitution (1 Cor. 6-7) just before he turns to the etiquette of eating food that had been previously sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8-10). John of Patmos also associates eating “idol meat” with porneia (Rev 2:14, 20, i.e. sexual immorality, not necessarily fornication), as does the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15).

Food is necessary to continue our own lives and sex is necessary to continue human life, but both have the capacity to make us impure, unclean, unholy, depending not only on what we put in our mouths, but when, where, and with whom we do it. Food etiquette gets extensive treatment in the New Testament, and this is in part because some followers of Jesus decided not to care about many of the restrictions on food that they had inherited from their Jewish founders and their Gentile cultures. They attempted to leave these restrictions behind in favor of unity among the assembly of believers and a focus on what they considered more important matters like God, Christ, living with the Spirit, and the well-being of the community.

This is not to say that Jews or pagan Gentiles did not already care about God or the well-being of their communities – indeed eating the right things with the right people was a way that both maintained the well-being of their communities. But whereas Gentile cultures fostered social or civic cohesion by eating certain meals in honor of certain gods at certain times, and Jews fostered social cohesion by maintaining certain dietary practices, some Christ-following groups seem to have formed social cohesion by avoiding meals in honor of other gods while also ignoring both Jewish dietary rules and Gentile social etiquette. Christ-followers could be disruptive and weird because they were a community that ate together in one house, and they apparently ate whatever was served.

This is not a minor step. It is important to realize how much the followers of Jesus were asking of their congregants – especially their Jewish ones – when they casually “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). Jesus’ brother, James, seems to have had some trouble giving up those rules (Gal 2:11-14). This is not to say that all Jews everywhere were uniformly disgusted by non-kosher food. One certainly gets the impression, when the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (a contemporary of Jesus) discusses pig’s flesh as the “most succulent of meats” which must be avoided only to build self-control (Spec. 4.100-1), that this dude’s had a pork chop and liked it.

But people have their taboos. Many Americans would get physically ill at the thought of eating a dog or a horse, and that’s without violating a contract with the Creator or betraying an idea of national identity.

Jews weren’t the only ones with food issues, though. Take this problem of meat from an animal that had previously been sacrificed to a god other than the Jewish one. The reasoning of some early Christians seems clear: the other gods don’t exist, so a priest ritually killing an animal in a temple has no impact on the meat itself. If devotees of Aphrodite or whoever have a big festival, sacrifice more animals than they can eat, and suddenly there’s a lot of cheap beef on the market, dig in! After a feast, there might be literally tons of meat on the market that needed to go quickly – no refrigeration and a warm environment are a bad combination. The price suddenly plummets. If you’re hosting a big meal, say, on Sunday, it makes sense to take advantage of the low prices.

But almost all Christians (when Paul was writing) were converts. Some Jews among them might be uncomfortable with eating the idol meat because of taboos in Jewish culture. But some of the people who had been the ones sacrificing those same animals up until recently might also be a bit squeamish about eating it. Imagine a Roman Catholic converting and then having people casually drink sacramental wine at the new communal meal because they found it cheap. Sure, he no longer believes that this is the blood of Christ, but wouldn’t he be a bit uncomfortable? Would he miss the experience of Holy Communion? What if he had had a traumatic separation from the Church as he joined the new sect – would he be a bit more likely to view the wine as evil, unclean, defiling in some way?

In this context, it is interesting to note how Paul addresses the situation. Keep in mind that Paul is himself a diaspora Jew who had apparently trained as a Pharisee. We would expect him to take a hard line on this issue, just as the Jerusalem Christians do and as John of Patmos does when writing to nearby churches. Yet Paul takes a remarkably nuanced approach, one that appeals to relationships at every level.

Relationships

What if you are at a dinner hosted by a friend and your friend serves meat? Should you ask where it came from and risk causing offense? No, don’t bother asking. The meat is still meat. The gods it was sacrificed to aren’t real anyway, and you risk alienating the Christian community from outsiders. But this is to look outward. What if there is a Christian in attendance who warns you that you are eating idol food? Then you should refrain from eating it – not because the meat itself can harm you but because eating it can harm your relationship with a fellow Christian. You refrain for the sake of the relationship until the other person’s understanding is strengthened, developed, matured, and he or she at least won’t raise a stink over a “non-issue” anymore.

What if someone invites you to dinner at a temple? A wealthy investor comes to town and needs to hire some skilled labor; he may well host a dinner at the temple – he sacrifices a lamb, the priests take a leg and serve the rest to his guests. You didn’t sacrifice the lamb, but there you are in a temple eating the sacrificed food. Not attending the dinner may mean losing a great deal of work. But what if someone sees you eating in the temple? What if that someone spent her life attending services at that temple, sacrificing to that god? If it’s ok that you are doing it, wouldn’t it be ok if she does it too? Worship is a lifelong practice, a habit that can be difficult to break. Once she stops going to a temple, she might miss the smells, the feel, the space and the sense of veneration it inspires. What would it hurt to go back now and then?

Exclusive Relationships

To answer this, Paul takes one hard line: you may absolutely not sacrifice to other gods! But note why this is so, because it comes back to this issue of relationships. After all, other gods don’t exist. At most there is a demon posing as a god. Sacrificing to the demon accomplishes nothing in itself other than to establish a relationship of worship with the demon, a relationship you are only supposed to have with God and Christ. To enter into another relationship with a demon outside of your relationship with Christ – or to enter into one with the, say, Artemis-worshiping community outside of your relationship with the Christ-worshiping community – is to violate the relationships you should be maintaining, with Christ and with other Christians. You can have your family and business relationships with anyone you want, but the relationship of worship is exclusive. That is why it is so often described as a marriage in the Bible: you are being unfaithful in both senses. If eating a dinner in a temple, a dinner you might know has nothing to do with the god, tempts others into breaking their relationship with Christ and with the community then you have done real harm. Harm beyond missing out on some work. If this is the case (and perhaps there are times when it might not be), then you should avoid eating the idol meat in the temple.

In each case the substance itself is not the issue. The act of eating it is not the issue. Rather Paul concentrates on relationships within the community and with Christ as greater than concerns over purity. Idol meat poses no direct threat, no matter how filthy, unclean, defiled, and satanic some members of the community think it is. What you put in your mouth is not the point; relationships are.

A New Controversy over “Meat”

Paul’s position in the debate over idol meat is instructive, I think, in the current debate over non-normative sexual relationships. For some Christians it is not that a loving sexual relationship between two adults is in itself wrong, except when those adults happen to be of the “wrong” gender configuration. As with meat that is no different from any other meat save some words spoken over it by a priest, the same relationships that would be celebrated in most circumstances (boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands and wives) are here viewed as filthy, unclean, defiled, even satanic.

The people who think this way are bound by the ethics and social attitudes they’ve inherited and that predate their Christianity, historically and personally: Paul likely inherited his negative views of homosexual behavior from Palestinian Judaism and from the pagan philosophy of Stoicism, and most children learn it from their surroundings well before they can read or understand the Bible. All over we hear the gagging sound of some Christians as they think about what others might be putting in their mouths. This leads them to kick their recently outed (Christian) children out of their homes or to create such a hostile environment that the children run away. How many of these families are torn apart because “I was raised to think that’s icky”? How many young men and women leave a church that sides with those who would shun them, spit on them, assault them, or legislate against them? How many find statements like “God is love” empty when all this hate is credited to God?

A daughter’s sexual relationship with another woman is not in competition with the (presumably non-sexual) relationship she has with a mom or dad. Nor does it compete with a relationship of worship that she has with God. Should our children’s particular taste in meat sever or strengthen the relationships we have with them? If Christ’s death allows us to value our relationships with each other over and above the foods we eat, if in Christ there really is neither Jew nor Gentile (so pass the ham and cheese?), no male and female, then what is important would seem not to be our naughty bits but the kinds of loving relationships we build with each other. If Paul’s discussion of food laws is instructive at all in a contemporary Western context, then it may urge us to consider the importance of our relationships with each other even before considering whether a certain behavior is in line with the taboos we’ve inherited.

There are Christian parents who have completely disowned their children for admitting that they will only find romantic love with a person their parents wouldn’t happen to choose. Perhaps if those parents considered their – yes, Christian – responsibility to maintain a loving relationship with them, they might still come to the same conclusion, that disowning their children was the right thing to do. But as more churches lose young congregants because they just can’t understand why the pastor gets so upset over the dating habits of people he’s never met, and as adolescent Christians are made homeless and prostituted when they are shoved out of their homes, communities, and churches because their parents and religious leaders can’t imagine enjoying sex with the partners they’ve chosen, it is perhaps worth considering which is more important: maintaining relationships within families and church communities, or maintaining a culturally inherited distaste for certain flavors of meat.

The Cost of Biblical Studies (in Georgia)

I received an MA in Religion, with a focus on biblical studies, from a public university: the University of Georgia. When I looked at public colleges and universities in Illinois, only three offered a critical course on the Bible taught within a religion department (Illinois State University, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, and Western Illinois University). So I wanted to look at whether a state lint-deep in the Bible belt would offset the cost of biblical studies by offering courses in biblical studies at public universities.

The difference between private and public tuition in Georgia is amplified by the HOPE scholarship, a state lottery-funded scholarship that pays 90% of tuition for students who maintain a B average or higher. Maybe the difference in cost between schools with biblical studies (BS) and non-biblical studies schools (NBS) would not be as drastic as it is in Illinois. As it turns out, while the average cost of higher education in Georgia is lower than in Illinois, the differences in cost are not much better in Georgia. Biblical studies remain accessible to a privileged minority.

Average Cost per School

I looked at 56 colleges and universities in Georgia, 27 of which (48.2%) offered courses in biblical studies (already lower access compared to Illinois, where half the schools were BS):

  • Average cost per school: $15,469.36            ($13,398.66 with HOPE)
  • Average cost per BS school: $22,381.22      ($21,359.76 with HOPE)
  • Average cost per NBS school: $9,034.17     ($5,986.61 with HOPE)

So ignoring HOPE, BS schools were more than $13,000 more per year than NBS schools, a difference similar to Illinois. Factoring in the HOPE scholarship, the difference jumped to more than $15,000 more per year.

Average Cost per Student

Students tend to flock to schools funded by HOPE, most of which do not offer biblical studies. However four schools with high enrollment do offer biblical studies of some sort: Georgia State University (32,082 undergrads), University of Georgia (27,547 undergrads), Georgia Southern University (18,005 undergrads), and Valdosta State University (11,375 undergrads). That means that roughly 37% of students at HOPE-eligible schools have access to biblical studies. Still, these are four of the more expensive public schools in Georgia, so they don’t help to offset the cost as dramatically as one might think:

  • Average cost per student: $10,812.03            ($6,446.58 with HOPE)
  • Average cost per BS student: $16,227.15      ($11,009.88 with HOPE)
  • Average cost per NBS student: $6,642.61    ($2,933.08 with HOPE)

The difference between BS and NBS students here is not as high as in Illinois, but still almost $10,000 per year without considering HOPE, and over $8,000 factoring it in.

Put a different way, without HOPE the average BS student pays roughly 2.4 times as much to attend college than an NBS student. With HOPE, a BS student pays more than 3.75 times as much to attend school than an NBS student.

Conclusion

Even though higher education in Georgia is cheaper than in Illinois and offers significant access to publicly funded biblical studies, it is still a privilege of those willing (and able) to pay thousands more for school. Most schools do not offer any courses in biblical studies, so most students, 56%, do not attend a school that offers them. A higher percentage of students may take a biblical studies course at some point in Georgia than in Illinois, but on average only with significantly greater investment. Biblical studies, even in the heart of the Bible belt and with a state scholarship helping to fund four universities offering BS, is a privilege of those who can afford it.

The Bible as a Magical Text among the Creationists

Some of us have a tendency to obsess over minor details in the wording the biblical texts. I have no problem with this. To outsiders, i.e. people who do not compulsively read the Bible whether Christian, Jewish, or otherwise, this can all seem arcane and at risk of missing the forest for the trees. But the Bible is an important text. In some circles authorship is credited to God (although to my knowledge God has not claimed authorship himself), and so the words that God chose to communicate with humanity are important spiritual artifacts.

The connection many Jews have to these words is of a different sort to that which most Christians have. Many Jews speak and read modern Hebrew, a good number as a first language. When they read the Bible, they hear the traditional text in its own words and in a language that is at least an early version of one they speak. Greek-speaking Christians have a comparable connection to the New Testament.

For most Christians, however, to contemplate the Bible is not to contemplate its words but their meaning as interpreted through translation into another language. The fact that the first recipients of the Word spoke Hebrew or Aramaic and the later recipients spoke a form of common Greek is incidental to the message of the Bible, its meaning. Those languages were simply the medium through which the message was delivered. We don’t obsess over the particles of air that conducted the sound waves emitting from Jesus’ mouth, why obsess over the particular vibrations they caused?

The prophets, historians, and songwriters of Israel happened to speak Hebrew, so they wrote in Hebrew. The evangelists and letter-writers of the New Testament spoke Greek and lived in a world where Greek was a common language of the Roman Empire, and so they wrote in Greek. No Christians I know attach any importance to the role of Greek in the creation of the New Testament. That is, Christ apparently did not wait to be incarnated until the world had a sufficient number of Greek speakers. Rather people happened to speak Greek, so the Bible was written in Greek; had they spoken Japanese, well then we’d have a Japanese Bible. The Hebrew texts had already been translated into Greek, and the New Testament texts were soon translated into Latin and Syriac and Coptic and so on without controversy.

So the New Testament was written in Greek. Even the most literalist Christians generally admit that many of its scenes took place in Aramaic. No one seems to have complained when the characters in The Passion of the Christ spoke Aramaic because it failed to match the Greek text. Sure, a degree of overconfidence in the ability to translate from one language to another without influencing the meaning underlies this, but the translation itself actually helps to shift focus away from the words towards their meaning (in whatever language).

I would argue that this, in turn, moves us away from treating the Bible as a magical text, one that we don’t need to understand in order to have power. Biblical scholars have gone to some lengths to argue that biblical prayers (such as the Lord’s Prayer) are not spells even if we are meant to benefit from them in direct appeal to a god. But if I were to teach a child the Lord’s Prayer in Greek without telling her its meaning, then a spell is all it would be.

Granted, Christians and Jews have overtly used the Bible as a magical object for centuries. For an example in modern-day America (at least since 1973), an exorcist waving around a well-organized pile of wood pulp with squiggles on the front that look like ‘Holy Bible’ to scare off a demon is likewise indulging in a bit of magic. A bible is just an object, and a man-made one at that. Treating the object as powerful (and not its message) is magic at best, idolatry at worst.

So Hebrew and Greek are just the media through which the message was given. The words – which were not made up just for the Bible but everyday Hebrew and Greek words already being used to ask for directions, write contracts, and describe bowel movements – should not be the final focus of our attention because they are incidental, the noises and squiggles people made at the time to represent ideas. Studying these noises and squiggles is important to get at the ideas they represent, but what should be the focus are the ideas themselves. What were the biblical authors trying to say using the languages they inherited from their culture?

Now let’s turn to the mythical, cosmological, and scientific systems that we can detect in the Bible. I’ll get to Genesis in a minute, but let me give another example first. In the prologue to the Gospel of John, the children of God are described as those who were not born of bloods, but of God (John 1:13). Why the plural ‘bloods,’ haimatōn not haimatos? Because in the biological understanding of the day embryos were formed by the mixture of two bloods: the menstrual ‘blood’ of the woman (which is not strictly speaking blood but endometrial tissue) and the semen of the man, which was believed to be purified blood. Think of waves frothing in the ocean and turning white, only here a dude gets all hot and bothered, starts shaking things around, and soon he has, well, frothed up some baby juice out of his own blood. Does anyone think of semen in this way anymore? Blood and sperm cells (not to mention all of the other material in semen) are radically different in structure and genetic potential, and they have very different functions in the body. But in the ancient world, no one had ever seen a blood cell or a sperm cell (or for that matter menstrual tissue and ova) under a microscope. The ideological framework behind John’s wording here is simply out of date and evidently inaccurate.

There are perhaps three possible responses to learning this. First, one might embrace his inner fundamentalist and decide that biological science is wrong, that semen and menstrual tissue are in fact just forms of blood and that children are formed by mixing the bloods of a man and a woman.

Second, one might reject the truth of the Gospel’s assertion that we can become children of God because, whether he was inspired by the Holy Spirit or just an early Christian writing down his religious ideas, if the author can’t get basic biology right, how can we trust him on salvation?

Yet a third possibility exists. Whatever the nature of the author’s ‘inspiration,’ it seems to have been cooperative, not coercive. The author spoke common first century Greek, so he communicated ideas through that medium. No angelic language, for example, was used. The author also wanted to explain becoming a child of God in contrast to becoming a child in a normal way. His point is not that the biological understanding of his day is eternally valid. Who cares? His point is that being begotten of God is a ‘birth’ completely distinct from biological reproduction. God does not need to have sex with your mom for you to be God’s child. More to the point, you do not need to be high-born but born again, from above, of water and Spirit. You do not need to be born into the right ethnicity or gender or class to become a child of God, but to believe. The biological details are only there to highlight the contrast between the two births, not to give us a lesson in human reproduction. At that level, we can still appreciate and understand what he was trying to say.

So this Genesis thing. Let’s leave aside the fact that taking the account as a strict chronology of seven (consecutive, “24-hour” in a Newtonian sense) days was largely abandoned for centuries. The point is that it has recently resurfaced due to 1) increased literacy from public and private education that was not coupled with traditional study of the Bible, so that the most simplistic reading was made possible without the benefit of centuries of contemplation and development, and 2) the negative reaction to the success of scientific investigation. Just when people were beginning to be able to read (translated) Bibles all on their own, scientists were telling us that there is only a molten core under the surface of the earth, not Hell; that the earth took billions of years to form, not a few days; and that humans are animals made up of molecules and bound by the same laws as the rest of the universe, that we cannot simply walk back the process x number of times to arrive at our great-great-great-…-great grandparents and their creepy, inbred children.

This ‘young Earth’ position is no different than a ‘two bloods’ position. The message of the first chapter of Genesis has something to do with the order of the universe, an order credited to God’s guidance in creation over time. When humanity is created last of the living beings (in the first chapter at least—contradicted immediately in the second), two further points seem to be made. The first is that we are dependent on God and the order that God infused creation with for our existence. We are subsequent to and yet no different from the other created beings except in the second point, which is that we have a responsibility as intelligent beings to contribute to the order of creation, not to the chaos. This message tends to get lost on American readers who want to make a buck off of savaging the environment.

The implied author wanted to convey this message, and so he expressed it in a language (ancient Hebrew) and a cosmological framework that he and his audience could understand. That the author envisions a flat earth with water below it and water above it (hence rain and a blue sky) is beside the actual point, which is that the configuration of the cosmos in a way that is amenable to (human) life is accomplished through God’s guidance. The nice neighborhood is what’s important, not the ‘bowl on a plate’ cosmological model. Creation itself, not its verbal and paradigmatic description. Likewise the seven days are clearly a symbol linked to the Sabbath (cf. the 10 Commandments, Exod 20:11) meant to demonstrate the harmony of Israel’s Law with creation. Again, most of the young Earthers don’t even bother with the Sabbath.

And what if God directly inspired this text to the point that it represents a verbatim dictation of the divine Word? Well, even then communication is a two-way street. If someone speaks incredibly eloquent Russian to me, no communication will take place because I do not speak Russian. Likewise, if a physicist explains a particularly obscure theory to me in eloquent English, a language I understand, we can expect almost as little communication to take place because I do not have the background in theoretical physics to understand what she is saying. If we are quite traditional (since the text is anonymous) and literal about the book of Genesis, then we might believe that it was dictated word for word to Moses. Since Moses spoke Hebrew, God spoke Hebrew to him. Addressing him in ancient Chinese would have been counter-productive, so God met Moses on his own terms.

Similarly, God wanted to communicate to Moses certain ideas about humanity’s dependence on the order that God had created. Moses had a particular cosmological understanding that was quite common among the cultures surrounding Israel. He was also a lawgiver tasked with upholding certain traditions such as the Sabbath, and integrating the Sabbath structure into creation underlines its importance. God could communicate these important theological ideas within Moses’ ancient and common cosmology, so there was no need to correct it since the cosmology itself was not the point! God could have wasted their time giving Moses an advanced training course in thermodynamics, temporal mechanics, and a detailed lesson in geology, but that would be to miss the forest for the trees.

Furthermore, Moses was only an intermediary. He then had to communicate the message to the people of Israel, who themselves had inherited ideas of cosmology and creation. Had Moses tried to explain all of the intricacies of cosmological history to them from the big bang forward, they would have thrown their hands up and said, “Whatever nerd, I’m going back to Egypt!” It is all but certain that the theological message would have been lost. Shockingly, knowing the limitations of human understanding, God may have chosen the theological message over a science lesson. The message could be communicated well enough without teaching them a new language or a new cosmology.

So even within a very traditional framework there is no reason to dismiss scientific developments because they do not align with ancient cosmologies if one has a somewhat more nuanced understanding of how communication takes place (and a great deal more humility about human understanding in general). To treat the ancient and foreign words/paradigms of the Bible as powerful in themselves apart from their message is to treat the Bible as a magical text with all the abracadabra that works whether you know what it means or not, whether it connects to your real experience of the world or not.

Instead, the ancient, pre-biblical words were a way of conveying meaning. The same goes for ancient, pre-biblical ideologies. They are a means for conveying a new and deeper theological idea, and the theological idea should be our focus, not the ‘noise’ used to convey it. To do otherwise is to treat the Bible as a magical text with its ancient, esoteric understandings of the universe, its waters in the sky that we cannot see but must be there because the Bible says they are, the stars as angels who obey physical laws only because they’re marching in formation. The ancient cosmology is perhaps a more complex building block out of which to build a theological message than whatever words certain people spoke 3,000 years ago, but it serves the same purpose. To the same extent that Christians do not feel the need to learn and in fact speak ancient, biblical Hebrew in their daily lives, it is just as unnecessary for them to pretend that no advances in human understanding of the cosmos have occurred in over three millennia. It is far more important for them to contemplate the orderly and life-giving world that God has provided them with as they make decisions that potentially upend that order and drive our fellow creations to extinction.