Why I Read This Book
This book came to my attention because of an e-mail from a friend, who wrote me the following:
You mentioned on your blog about wanting to find a good defense of Christianity while acknowledging the Bible's unreliability. Well, there is a blog I read once in a while by Rachel Held Evans, who has sort of made a name for herself as a Christian who is not afraid to ask the difficult questions about faith and the Bible. Yesterday I saw that she'd posted a review of a book by Peter Enns called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read it. Here's her review: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/peter-enns-bible-tells-me-soSo I wrote back:
Thank you for the recommendation. I've come across Rachel Held Evans before. I forget exactly how, but I think someone I know on Facebook must have linked to her blog in the past or something. I haven't read a lot of her, but my impression is that she is pursuing a dialogue within the Christian faith. She's defending a liberal view of Christianity against the more conservative view she grew up with. When I was 20, I would have been very much on board with her, but since then I've moved on into agnosticism, and my question now is, why believe in Christianity at all? I'm not sure this question is addressed so much in her writings, but I guess I haven't read enough to say. I get the impression from her book review that The Bible Tells Me So is also more concerned with defending a liberal view of Christianity against a conservative view, and maybe not so much of interest to an agnostic like me who is wondering why to believe in it at all. But all that being said, I admit to having my interest piqued. At some point I will try to track down that book and judge it for myself.And my friend gave me the following response:
I'm not surprised that you've encountered stuff written by Rachel Held Evans before. She has gotten quite a bit of attention, and I've noticed people on Facebook linking to her work as well. I see what you're saying about her writing from the perspective of faith. I did read this post, in which she talked some about her skepticism, but overall, you're right that she's writing as a believer. What made me think the Peter Enns book she reviewed might be of interest to you is that it seems to show how to address problems with the Bible (many of which you've blogged about), while still maintaining faith in God. I did manage to get a copy of it from the library, and I'm about a quarter of the way through it. It's written in a conversational tone, which makes it an easy read, but it also doesn't feel very rigorous. The author seems to take for granted that there is a God and that Christianity is true, even if the Bible is not meant to be read as a rule book or an authoritative account of history. How or why he maintains his belief is unclear to me. (I'm probably not expressing this well, and I should really finish the book before coming to any conclusions about it.) It does seem to be an interesting way of viewing the Bible, and very different from the way I was brought up to look at it, but yes, you may be correct that it won't explain why a person should believe in Christianity in the first place. I'll let you know when I finish it.
To which I replied:
Yes, that's exactly the impression I got from reading Rachel Evans book review of The Bible Tells Me So. Her review seemed to be focused on convincing conservative Christians that the Bible wasn't supposed to be taken literally. It didn't seemed focused on convincing skeptics why they should believe in the Bible given all the problems with it. But as you continue reading it, let me know your thoughts. Are you finished with it? Is it worth reading?And my friend replied again:
I did finish the Bible Tells Me So book. I'd say it's a good introductory book for getting people to think about the Bible differently. I feel like it's for people who have a lot of questions about the Bible, but still have an underlying belief that there is a God and that he sent his son Jesus to earth. I'm not even sure I'd recommend it to conservative Christians. I think they'd find the book to be too flippant. Peter Enns jokes a lot and uses pop culture references to keep the book light, but that, along with his views, might make people think he's not a serious biblical scholar. If someone were absolutely convinced about the basics of Christianity, I would say that Enns provides the best explanation of how to view the Bible--as a book written by imperfect people in different times and places, who shaped the story to fit their spiritual needs at that time. But you're right that it's not the kind of book you'd want to read as a defense of Christianity. So for you, this type of book might not be worth your time.As you can see from this correspondence, there's some ambivalence about whether this book would address exactly the concerns I wanted it to address. And yet, it did sound interesting. And in the end, I decided if there was any doubt about it, it was better to err on the side of reading the book rather than not reading it. After all, you don't lose anything by reading it.
[...Although (spoiler alert) most of my initial reservations about the book turned out to be correct!]
The Issue (And My Background with it)
I'll spend a few words laying out the issue before I get into examining the book.
The idea common in traditional conservative Christian communities is that the Bible is perfectly true in every detail. This is known as Biblical Inerrancy (W), and is more or less the traditional view of Christianity that most of us were brought up with.
...I say "more or less" because in actuality it's not so simple. For one thing, I don't think there's any such thing as a community where every person believes exactly the same thing. Although growing up the predominate assumption of my community was (more or less) Biblical Inerrancy, I recall some debates among the outskirts of that doctrine. And related to the above point, Biblical Inerrancy is itself a somewhat complicated philosophy with many different variation and shades of grey. For example, some Biblical inerrantists might believe that there are no errors in the Bible, but there might be metaphors or simplified accounts (as in the creation story) and some doctrines that might have been true at one time, but were no longer culturally relevant (like Paul's commands for slaves to obey their masters, or Paul's prohibitions on women having authority over men). And even if a Christian is prepared to admit errors in the Bible, most Christians are more comfortable with minor errors than with major errors. For example, there were many teachers in my childhood who might have been perfectly comfortable admitting that Luke had made a minor mistake about the time of the governorship of Quirinius of Syria (W), but would have been a lot less comfortable admitting that the whole birth narrative in Luke was fabricated (as in fact there is good evidence for).
Errancy versus inerrancy is not a simple "either-or" debate, is what I'm trying to say here, but more of a scale with many different gradient positions.
To get too much into all of these nuances is going to confuse the issue, so for the purposes of simplicity, in this book review I'm going to attempt to posit Biblical Inerrancy as one philosophy, and to identify this philosophy as the dominate one in my Christian education, and furthermore go on to presume that this is the dominate cultural form of Christianity in North America. And for simplicity's sake, I'm going to define Biblical inerrancy as the belief that there are no mistakes in the Bible.
The difficulty with the inerrantist position is that it's not true, and it's not true in a way that can be proven. The Biblical narrative has been contradicted by archaeology and outside historical sources. Plus even inside the Bible, there are a lot of internal contradictions.
And not just in little nit-picking ways either--whole huge chunks of the Biblical narrative are now disbelieved by historians.
To list but a few brief examples (from many): The exodus never happened. The conquest of Canaan never happened. The Gospels contain two contradictory narratives about the birth of Christ, which mean at least one of them must be wrong. There are 4 contradictory accounts about the resurrection, which suggest at least 3 of them must be wrong. And the list goes on and on.
(I'm not going to list all the problems with the Bible in this one post, but it is, as my friend mentioned in the correspondence quoted above, an issue that I have spent a lot of time discussing on this blog the last few years. See for more reading on the subject see my reviews of: God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, The Unauthorized Version by Robin Lane Fox, The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, Forged by Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman, my hostile review of the claims made for the reliability of Christianity in The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, my comments on the Yale University Lecture series on the Old and New Testament, my review of the BBC series Bible Mysteries, my many nitpicks in my Bible Trivia series, comments on the problems of 2nd Peter, and also see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here et cetera.)
For me, as someone raised with an inerrantist view of the Bible, the conclusion seemed unavoidable. The historical truth claims that the Bible made were false, therefore the Bible was false, therefore Christianity as a belief system was unsupportable, and the obvious conclusion was to become an agnostic.
What complicated the issue, however, was that many Christian scholars knew about the historical problems with the Bible, and yet still believed in Christianity. And in fact my understanding is that there has been a lot of work done over the past 100 years by some liberal theologians to explain how Christianity could still work as a belief system despite all these historical problems.
This was not my background, but I was aware that these views were out there somewhere. I was skeptical that Christian scholars would be able to square the circle--argue that the Bible could be wrong, but Christianity could still be true--but I was curious to see how they would try. (And, as my friend indicated in the above e-mails, I have expressed on this blog a few different times the desire to at some point read these liberal Christian arguments--here, here and here, for example.) This book, then, seemed like it might finally scratch that itch: to present a defense of Christianity while simultaneously acknowledging that most of the historical narrative in the Bible was deeply flawed.
There's a lot to chew on in this book, but I'll start with some general comments about the tone and readability, before moving on to the content of the argument.
Tone and Readability:
The book is written in a very conversational, easy to read tone. The author has done everything he can to try to lighten the scholarship with humor, and just about every paragraph is punctuated with a joke.
How much these constant jokes are appreciated, however, may vary from reader to reader. Many of the reviewers on Amazon.com praise the "engaging", "humorous", "lively" style of this book. And I didn't completely hate it myself, but it did sometimes strike me as a bit...desperate. Sometimes I got a sense of a writer trying just a little bit too hard to be constantly funny--like the old stereotype of the youth pastor who tries too hard to be hip.
I don't know--it's a mixed bag. Sometimes the jokes can help liven up the material, but I also found them a bit distracting from the subject material, and it ended up making it harder to stay focused on the book rather than easier. I got tired of reading through too many corny jokes at one time, and as a result I had to read this book in small doses. (At least one other person has told me she had a similar reaction reading this book.)
But the slight annoyance of corny jokes aside, over all it really is a quick and painless read, and I got through it in just a few quick days.
But, forget about the writing style, what is the author actually arguing here?
The Arguments This Book is Making
Despite the light tone of the book, there's a lot of heavy stuff that needs to be addressed here. Some issues are addressed very well, and on some issues the reader is just left hanging.
Because the predominate view of Christianity in North America is the inerrantist position (and again, I know this is an oversimplification, but just go with it for now), Peter Enns first needs to demolish the inerrantist position before he can set up an alternative philosophy for reading the Bible.
And it's not just the history of the Bible that Peter Enns finds problematic--it's also the morals of the Bible that are a big problem. The vengeful, murderous, genocidal God of the Old Testament is just as much of a problem for Peter Enns as the fact that the archaeological evidence doesn't match the Biblical narrative.
So Peter Enns has to argue against both the history of the Bible, and the morals of the Bible, and then set up what he views as an alternative. That's a lot of lifting for a slim 244 page book (with big print.)
On the positive side, I think he does a good job of demolishing the inerrantist position. However, I'm not sure he does a good job of providing an alternative that makes sense.
Peter Enns starts out his book with the most problematic Bible story of all: the conquest of Canaan, and the fact that God ordered the Israelites to commit genocide against entire nations.
This is doubly a problem for Christians because (1) the archaeological records indicate it never happened, and (2) even if it did happen, it is utterly and completely morally reprehensible.
Enns addresses the second point first. The genocide of the Canaanites was completely morally unacceptable, and it's useless to try to pretend it wasn't. He addresses all of the rationals conservative Christians have traditionally used to justify it (The Canaanites were really evil so they deserved it, God is God so he gets to do whatever he wants, God needed to do this for his grand divine plan to work, et cetera) and he effectively demolishes each of these arguments in turn. There's just no justifying genocide, no matter how you look at it.
But then Enns gets to the kicker. Archaeological records show that the Biblical narrative concerning the conquest of Canaan is completely wrong.
Here, at least, Peter Enns must be given credit for tackling the historical problem head-on. In contrast to the blatantly dishonest Christian apologist Lee Strobel, who wrote in The Case for Christ that "Archaeology has not produced anything that is unequivocally a contradiction to the Bible", Peter Ennis makes statements like:"Biblical archaeologists are about as certain as you can be about these things that the conquest of Canaan as the Bible describes did not happen: no mass invasion from the outside by an Israelite army, and no extermination of Canaanites as God commanded" (p. 58) and later "What most everyone is certain about ... is that the Bible's version of events is not what happened" (p. 60).
Having then established the principal of historical problems with the Biblical narrative, Peter Ennis then goes on to highlight several other problems.
*The first 5 books of the Bible appear to have no historical value, and are largely just myths that the Israelites created to explain their current political situation with their neighbors.
*The exodus from Egypt and the wanderings in the desert are not supported by outside history, and appear to be contradicted by archaeology.
*The Jewish laws of Moses are contradictory to each other, appear to be based on separate sets of different laws that were collected over time, almost certainly did not come down from the hand of God on Mount Sinai, and appear to be of human rather than divine origin.
*The narratives of the monarchy period are relatively historically accurate, but even here the writers are adjusting the facts to suit their point of view, and because of this there are two separate and contradictory accounts of the same period: one contained in 1st Samuel through 2nd Kings, and the other account contained in 1st&2nd Chronicles.
* The character of God himself in the Bible is wildly inconsistent, because the Biblical writers were all writing from different points of view.
* The Gospels contradict each other, because the Gospel writers are freely re-arranging the facts to suit their narrative style and point of view
* Things Jesus probably didn't say are put in his mouth by the Gospel writers when they want to emphasize a certain point.
*An acknowledgment of some of the contradictions and historical problems in the birth narratives of Jesus Christ, and at least the suggestion that the Gospel writers might be inventing these details for theological reasons rather than historical ones.
* And the same thing for the resurrection accounts.
* The New Testament writers were taking the Old Testament prophecies and passages out of context to imply that they meant something the original Old Testament writers never intended to.
All of these cases are much better developed inside the pages of the book, so if you haven't read the book you'll just have to take my word for it that Peter Enns makes a convincing case for each of these points.
It's also not a complete list of all the historical problems in the Bible by any means. There are a lot, lot more problems than this (see some of the books, lectures, and articles that I linked to above). But the problems that Peter Enns has chosen to highlight are more than enough to make his point, and an impressive list of problems for a Christian writer to admit to.
So, if this is the problem, then what to make of all this?
Peter Enns' view is that the Bible is written by human writers, and so represents their flawed view of God, rather than the perfect view of God we might have expected. For example, to return to the conquest of Canaan, it appears that at some point in their history, the Israelites must have invented a mythology of the conquest of Canaan that never happened historically. (Possibly the story was based on a series of local tribal conflicts, the retelling of which got more and more exaggerated over time.) The Israelites then imagined that not only did they wipe out the Canaanites, but that God had commanded them to do so, because this is how their warlike tribal culture viewed God.
The Bible then represents not a picture of God as he really is, but as a record of how humans have attempted to interpret God over time.
I don't know about you, but I didn't find that very satisfying as an answer.
Admittedly, part of the evaluation depends on what you expect from the book. If all you want is for Peter Enns to state a possible alternative way of reading the Bible, then he does lay out one possible alternative here, which you can take or leave as you like.
But if you want the book to defend this position, to argue it effectively against possible criticisms, and to credibly prove it , then this book is going to disappoint. Peter Enns does a good job of effectively demolishing the inerrantist position, but he does absolutely no work to establish his own position as credible.
Peter Enns doesn't even address the most common concerns that an inerrantist would have.
It's important to remember what the inerrantists are arguing, and what they are not arguing. Take a look at any website defending Biblical Inerrancy. (See for example HERE, HERE or HERE.)
Now, notice that absolutely none of these guys believe in Biblical inerrancy because they think the inerrancy is self-evident from the text itself, or that any person reading the Bible and examining the evidence dispassionately would inevitably arrive at the inerrantist view. In fact they're fully aware that it's the opposite. But they view inerrancy as a theological problem, and not a historical one. For theological reasons, they believe that the Bible has to be inerrant, and then they work backwards from that assumption to deal with the historical problems and internal contradictions. So when Peter Enns only addresses the historical problems of inerrancy, he's taking for his argument as an end point what really should be his starting point.
For example, nowhere does Peter Enns give a satisfactory rebuttal of some of the inerrantists arguments like:
The Bible stands or falls as a whole. If a major newspaper were routinely discovered to contain errors, it would be quickly discredited. It would make no difference to say, “All the errors are confined to page three.” For a paper to be reliable in any of its parts, it must be factual throughout. In the same way, if the Bible is inaccurate when it speaks of geology, why should its theology be trusted? It is either a trustworthy document, or it is not.Or
The Bible’s message must be taken as a whole. It is not a mixture of doctrine that we are free to select from. Many people like the verses that say God loves them, but they dislike the verses that say God will judge sinners. But we simply cannot pick and choose what we like about the Bible and throw the rest away. If the Bible is wrong about hell, for example, then who is to say it is right about heaven—or about anything else? If the Bible cannot get the details right about creation, then maybe the details about salvation cannot be trusted either. If the story of Jonah is a myth, then perhaps so is the story of Jesus.Or
If the Scripture is unreliable, can we offer the world a reliable gospel? How can we be sure of truth on any issue if we are suspicious of errors anywhere in the Bible? A pilot will ground his aircraft even on suspicion of the most minor fault, because he is aware that one fault destroys confidence in the complete machine. If the history contained in the Bible is wrong, how can we be sure the doctrine or moral teaching is correct? The heart of the Christian message is history. The Incarnation (God becoming a man) was demonstrated by the Virgin Birth of Christ. Redemption (the price paid for our rebellion) was obtained by the death of Christ on the Cross. Reconciliation (the privilege of the sinner becoming a friend of God) was gained through the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ. If these recorded events are not true, how do we know the theology behind them is true?
Peter Enns just completely by-passes all of these questions.
And it gets worse than that. To explain how unsatisfying Peter Enns's explanation is, let me briefly contrast him with another possible Christian view. Some other Christians have argued that the historical accuracy of the Bible is not important--it doesn't matter whether these things happened historically or not, what matters is that God wants us to believe that they happened. The message is more important than the history. So, for example, in this view whether or not Abraham and Isaac actually existed is of less importance than the message God wants us to learn about how Abraham was so devoted to God that he was willing to sacrifice his only son.
But notice, that this is not what Peter Enns is arguing. When it comes to the genocide in the conquest of Canaan, Peter Enns argues that not only did the ancient Israelites get the history wrong, but they also got the message completely wrong as well. So of what value is a Bible that not only gets the history wrong, but also gets the message wrong?
Traditional Christianity has always taught that humans get their morality from the Bible. Peter Enns seems to be advocating that Christians have to use their pre-existing morality to determine which parts of the Bible apply to them or not.
Well, why do we need the Bible then? Why not just rely on our innate sense of morality, and disregard the Bible completely?
Based on what Peter Enns believes about the Bible, I could possibly see maybe regarding it in a Joseph Cambell-esque way. That is, I could understand regarding the Bible as one of many human myths about the divine, which may or may not tell us some truths, and is valuable as a record of man's struggle to make sense out of his existence. But in this way, it would be no more valuable then the myths or religious texts of any other culture. I would not believe that the Bible is the one true word of God, and that Christianity is the only true religion. And Peter Enns has done absolutely no work to support this view.
Peter Enns does consider the Bible to be the word of God (he refers to it as such several times throughout the text) but what exactly he means by this is never clear to me. Nor does Peter Enns attempt to give any sort of proof that the Bible is the word of God. Or that Christianity is a true religion. The logic of the book, such as it is, seems to take it as an assumption that Christianity must be right, and that the Bible must be the word of God, and then works backwards from there. Since we know that the Bible must be the word of God, how do we fit in all these problems with the Bible into our view of God? Because it is not an option (for some unspoken reason) to disregard the Bible, but it is equally not an option to accept the view of a genocidal God from the Old Testament, then we have to just assume the human writers got the details wrong, but the overall message of Christianity is true.
[Certain passages of Peter Enns book put this backwards logic on full display. For example, when discussing the numerous contradictions in the law of Moses, Peter Enns writes "The editors of the Bible were obviously quite happy to include these law codes just as they are and leave them be. They didn't smooth things over, and they didn't seem to fret over how confused this would make God sound to people like us. The Bible they were happy to produce is complicated, challenging, and messy--and if you believe God had some say in producing the Bible, you have to conclude that God was apparently quite happy to let them do it." (p.163) Notice that backwards logic--he's not arguing that it's self-evident that God created the Bible because the Bible is such an obviously divine document. He's already starting from the proposition that God was behind the Bible, and then arguing backwards that this must mean God was quite happy with what is inside it.]
Part of the problem with this book is that it's not a fully developed argument. In order to develop an argument that in any way made sense, Peter Enns would have to explore the ramifications of this view in response to a number of questions.
For example Christianity, as it has been traditionally defined, is a faith based religion. That is to say, your salvation or damnation is supposedly based not on what you do, but on what you believe. Does Peter Enns believe this? And if so, what does he think it is necessary to believe in order to gain salvation?
Peter Enns spends a great deal of time telling us where he thinks the Bible is historically unreliable, but where is it reliable? Does Peter Enns believe Jesus died on the cross and rose again? Is Peter Enns arguing that the historical accuracy of the Bible is in doubt at every point except for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, or is he just as skeptical of the resurrection story as he is about everything else? If he does believe Jesus rose from the dead, on what basis does he believe it (given that the Bible is so unreliable on everything else?) And if he doesn't believe in the death and resurrection of Christ, then what exactly is his idea of Christianity based on?
And why did Jesus need to die on the cross? Was it to redeem humanity because of original sin? But if the creation story never happened, then how did original sin enter the world? And how would humanity be responsible for original sin if death existed millions of years before humans even evolved? But if humanity is not guilty of original sin, then why did we need to be redeemed on the cross?
Does Peter Enns believe in heaven and hell? He appears to be skeptical of the traditional doctrine of hell, as he indicates on pages 41-43, but then he doesn't fully develop his thoughts, or express what he believes in its place. If there is no hell, is everyone going to heaven?
The New Testament repeatedly indicates that it is to your advantage to believe in Christ, and to your disadvantage not to believe. The doctrine of heaven and hell, as cruel as it was, at least made sense out of this kind of talk--it was very clear what that advantage and disadvantage was. If Peter Enns doesn't believe in hell, then what is the disadvantage for non-believers?
Also, traditionally, Christianity has claimed exclusivity--that is, it is the one true religion, and all other religions were false. Does Peter Enns still believe this, or is he a religious pluralist? If the Bible is nothing more than a record of how humans have (often incorrectly) perceived God, then what makes it different from the stories of any other religion? Aren't the Greek myths also stories of how humans have historically tried to make sense out of the divine? Wouldn't these stories then have just as much value as the Bible? Or does the value only apply to monotheistic religions (like Islam)? And if we do accept that the religious writings of other religious traditions have some value, then would this also apply to religions created by obvious charlatans, like Joseph Smith, or only serious religions? And who would decide which was which?
And if the Bible is the only true word of God, then on what basis does Peter Enns believe this, given all the problems with the Bible that he's identified?
What does Peter Enns think is the central message of Christianity? And how would he know? Peter Enns uses the teachings of Jesus to disprove the genocide in the Old Testament, but if the Bible got the genocide part wrong, how do we know the teachings of Jesus are true? In fact, Peter Enns himself argues at one point in the book that the Gospel writers are putting words into Jesus's mouth. So which of Jesus's teachings are authentic, and which ones are not?
Peter Enns never addresses any of these questions, and so I'm left feeling like he hasn't developed a coherent belief system in place of the inerrantist position he has demolished.
It's not so much that Peter Enns completely ignores the difficulties with his position, but rather that he tends to awkwardly side-step them. For example, on page 62, Peter Enns addresses the question of why God would allow the genocide stories to get into the Bible in the first place, when it goes against everything God wants us to believe.
He's God, after all? Why does he even work with a script written from a violent and tribal mindset? Why didn't God stop the storytellers. "No, sorry...we're not going to do it that way. You have no idea how much trouble Richard Dawkins is going to cause with all of this. Plus, Jesus is going to demolish this 'kill your enemies and take their land' business. Best to avoid the problem altogether."
Instead of working within the system, God could have disallowed it. Then the Israelites could have written a wholly different kind of story altogether, a story no one had ever seen before, and knocked everyone's socks off. That's the kind of ancient storytelling I would have signed off on--if I were God.
But I'm not, and I've given up trying to get into God's head, and I wish others would too. (p. 62)
But this is not an explanation of the issue so much as it is an escape.
A lot of religious apologetics will, sooner or later, invariably fall back on some sort of version of "we can't know the mind of God," or "God is so infinitely beyond us that it's no good trying to expect God to measure up to the standards of human logic." (Although I never got around to it in my monster review of Lee Strobel's book, Lee Strobel also fell back on this logic once or twice. Almost all religious writers use it sooner or later.)
However, this does not work as a defense of a religious position. If you want to say "we can't know the mind of God" then you can go ahead and become an agnostic. But to argue any sort of religious position is to argue that, in some measure, you are claiming to understand an aspect of God. That's the very definition of religion--to make some sort of claims about the divine. It is then unacceptable to on one hand claim to know an aspect of God, but then to use the line that "we can't know the mind of God" as an all-purpose escape whenever your claims about God run into logical difficulties.
This is why I, as an agnostic, find the arguments of Peter Enns so frustrating. On the one hand, he is evading trying to explain why God would include the genocide of the Canaanites in his holy book. But on the other hand, he is definitely defending the Bible as the word of God. And he is defending a certain interpretation of the Bible (in his case, the non-rule book interpretation) as the interpretation God intends. On a certain level, he definitely is "trying to get into God's head".
Furthermore, the inclusion of these genocidal stories in the central document of the major religion of the Western World has had demonstrable harmful effects. Numerous Christians in history have used the Canaanite genocide to justify their own brutalities. To give but one example from many, Oliver Cromwell used the Old Testament to justify his near genocidal campaigns against the Irish.
If you believe that God had some sort of hand in creating the Bible (and Peter Enns does) then it just makes no sense at all that God would have signed off on any of this, especially since, as Peter Enns argues, the genocides never really happened, and it was the opposite of the message that God wanted, and God (presumably) must have known what harm these passages would do in Western history.
This book has gotten a number of good reviews from liberal Christians (see, for example, Rachel Evans review linked to above) but I'm inclined to think liberal Christians will be the only ones who like it. Peter Enns hasn't done any of the work necessary to convince conservative Christians, or agnostics like myself. Like so many books in religious publishing, this book is only meant to be read by people who will already agree with it.
* Theological issues aside, the history geek in me is often interested in how much of the Old Testament is historically reliable just for the sake of knowing history.
If you're like me, then this book does kind of scratch that itch a little bit. It's not the most thorough book on the subject out there I'm sure, but Peter Enns does get into the history a little bit.
Basically, Peter Enns seems to have a very similar view to atheist Robin Lane Fox's book The Unauthorized Version. Both Peter Enns and Robin Lane Fox believe that the Old Testament narratives were written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem, so that the history closest in time to the fall of Jerusalem is the most reliable, and as you move further and further back in history it gets less and less reliable. Basically anything before the start of the monarchy has just no historical reliability whatsoever (stories of the patriarchs, exodus, conquest of Canaan, et cetera). However, these stories are interesting because they exist as a political explanation of Israel's relationship with its neighboring countries at the time these histories were written. Thus the political prejudices of Israel were written backwards onto the pre-history account. For example, the Israelites showed their contempt of their neighboring rival Moab by describing the origin of the Moabites as a drunken incestuous coupling between Lot and his daughters.
* Peter Enns shows how the New Testament writers were constantly distorting the meaning of the Old Testament scriptures--for example, taking Old Testament prophecies that had nothing to do with the Messiah, and taking them out of context to make them appear as if they were prophesying about Jesus.
Jesus also commits the same sin as the narrators of the Gospels. Jesus will repeatedly twist the meaning of Old Testament texts and stories to make them mean something the original authors never intended. (Peter Enns discusses this in his, somewhat provocatively titled, chapter "Jesus Gets a Big Fat "F" in Bible pages 167-170).
Robin Lane Fox and Thomas Paine make exactly the same point in their respective books.
But whereas Robin Lane Fox and Thomas Paine see this as disproving Christianity, Peter Enns views this as a positive example of how the New Testament writers and Jesus were in constant dialogue with their scriptures. Because the Bible records Jesus himself reinterpreting scriptures for a new era, Peter Enns claims that this is how God wants us to interpret the Bible. After all, if Jesus himself did it, and the Bible records Jesus as doing it, then it must be correct, right?
* But then, in another part of the book, Peter Enns implies that the Gospel writers were probably putting words into Jesus's mouth that Jesus never spoke at all. On page 186, in the context of describing what Jesus said about the Old Testament food laws, Peter Enns writes:
Jesus also swims against the stream concerning the Old Testament dietary laws.
Both Matthew and Mark relay a story (although differently) where Jesus says, "what goes into you from the outside does not defile, but what comes out of you"--an odd statement, given that the dietary laws in Torah are exactly about how certain foods entering your body from outside defile you....
Mark's Gospel goes into more detail [than Matthew's] about how evil comes from the inside, like theft, adultery, murder, and so on. He also adds that Jesus was actually declaring that the Old Testament food laws were now null and void.
We need to be a little careful with Mark's version. Most biblical scholars think that Jesus didn't declare food laws null and void. This comment was Mark's own creation written in hindsight and, as we saw in chapter 3, reflects his purpose for writing--specifically to make sure later Gentile followers of Jesus understood they didn't need to keep those laws.
Also, in the book of Acts (about ten years or so after Jesus's resurrection) early followers of Jesus deal with the topic of food laws for what seems like the first time rather than simply referring back to something Jesus explicitly taught. Paul also makes a big deal about dietary laws in the book of Romans, but never hints that he is following Jesus's lead. (p. 186)So, I'm confused here. On one hand Peter Enns is arguing that Jesus shows us the correct way to interpret scripture because the Gospels show Jesus creatively reinterpreting scripture in order to suit the present day. But on the other hand, Peter Enns admits that the Gospel writers are putting words into Jesus's mouth that he probably never actually spoke. So how is anything the Jesus of the Gospels said or did supposed to be in any way reliable?
* Another point I'm confused about. When disproving the genocidal stories in the Old Testament, Peter Enns argues that these are actually human stories rather than divine stories, and to help prove this, he shows that the exact same stories showed up in the literature of the other nations. He gives the following example:
A ninth century BCE stone monument from Moab, one of Israel's next-door neighbors to the east...illustrates how the Canaanite extermination in the Old Testament fits in an ancient mind-set. On this monument is carved a revealing--if also boastful and exaggerated--record of the Moabite king Mesha's military campaign against the Israelites.
The Israelites had been in control of Moab for some time, and the reason, Mesha tell us, has nothing to with Israel's might (of course not, why would you think that?), but because his god Kemosh was angry with Moab (yeah, that's it). Allowing foreigners to overrun them was Kemosh's punishment. Even when Moab is down, Moab's god is still in control.
But now all is right again between Kemosh and Moab, and Mesha's given the thumbs-up to go through the towns of Moab and kill all the Israelites as a sacrifice to Kemosh and take back the land that rightfully belongs to them. When Mesha got to the town of Nebo, we read that he "put to the ban the entire town, meaning he killed the entire population, seven thousand people in all, as an act of devotion to Kemosh.
If you think this sounds like what we read in the Bible, join the club. Both Mesha and Moses (and later Joshua) were told by their deity to invade a land they believed rightfully belonged to them and "put to the ban" the entire population as an act of devotion and obedience to God. Hebrew and Moabite languages are very similar languages, and they even use the same word for this ban. (p.56-57).Robin Lane Fox in his book, and Christine Hayes in her Yale lectures, also makes the same point. The entire Old Testament polemic--the idea that military success meant God was pleased with the Israelites, and military defeat means that they were being divinely punished--is not unique to the Bible, but found in other Near Middle Eastern cultures, as was the idea that they were divinely commanded to kill all their enemies.
The obvious conclusion, then, would be to include that neither the Bible nor the writings of Moab can be considered the word of God, right? But Peter Enns still believes the Bible is the word of God, he just believes that human errors crept into it. But I'm confused? Would he then make the same allowances for the Moabite writings? Or does this only apply to the Bible? He never explains this at all.
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Remarks on Religion