that awkward moment (surreal actually) when Christians dismiss the scholarship of non-Christians

That awkward moment when you ask,

So it turns out that there has been a discussion online regarding my personal religious views (or lack thereof). Ironically, the subject made its way into the public realm when Dr. Jim West introduced the topic as a red herring distraction from a lengthy discussion we had been having about why he continues to support the denial of rights and privileges to same-sex couples when it comes to having their marriages legally recognized by various secular state governments. The discussion where I challenged Dr. West on his fallacious logic regarding what he insists must necessarily follow if same-sex marriage is legalized can be found in the comments here.

In response to our exchange, Dr. West posted this post, in which he introduces yet another logical fallacy (a red herring) which he has used in the past, namely, that only Christians can critique Christianity, and that critiques made by those who are not Christians can be dismissed because they have no vested interest in the preservation of the faith. Or, to use Dr. West’s words,

“…we have different perspectives PRECISELY because I see life through the lens of Christian faith and he does not. It is for this reason that our views on several issues differ…I simply recognize that, at the end of the day, we approach problems and issues from differing starting points.”

Of course, once anyone reads the original disagreement, one quickly notices the inherent logical fallacy is Dr. West’s line of reasoning: my critique was regarding Dr. West’s selective hermeneutic depending on the particular social issue he’s addressing. While discussing slavery, despite the fact that the Bible clearly establishes divinely ordained slavery (Lev. 25:44; Exod. 21:4-6; Deut. 15:16-17) and endorses this previously established slavery (Titus 2:9; 1 Peter 2:18; Col. 3:22; Eph. 6:5), Dr. West opposes it. Similarly, despite the fact that the Bible clearly sees women as secondary in status to men, and that the New Testament commands women to remain silent (1 Cor. 14:34; Col. 3:18; Eph. 5:22-23) and not to have authority over a man (1 Tim. 2:12), Dr. West does not preach the continued suppression of women’s rights in our secular government. And yet, when I asked him why he continues to support the suppression of the rights and privileges of same-sex couples, he responded with a different, more fundamentalist, literalistic hermeneutic, stating:

“…i’m a christian and we don’t have the luxury of dispensing with things just because our culture thinks we should. culture isn’t the final arbiter of truth. revelation is.”

Of course, the blatant hypocrisy and inconsistency of this highly selective hermeneutic is glaring. Are not the passages condoning slavery and the suppression of women also “revealed Scripture”? Why is it that when the biblical revelation orders women to remain silent, Dr. West uses one hermeneutic to work around the passage so as to allow some women to have authority over men in the secular state government, but when homosexuality is condemned in the Bible, all of a sudden this sacred revelation is binding for all time, even for our secular government?

The question I posed to Dr. West was why he inconsistently employed one hermeneutic to read passages he was OK with dismissing, and a different hermeneutic to retain prohibitions against things he didn’t like (like homosexuality). And yet, Dr. West’s response deflected from his own inconsistency, and he proceeded to attack the accreditation of the one pointing out the hypocrisy, namely, me. I wasn’t a Christian, so we simply have to agree to disagree. However, that wasn’t the point of contention! The issue was Dr. West’s inconsistency, not my accreditation.

I based my critique on logic and facts (what the text actually says), and because he had no answer to his inconsistency, he simply ignored the critique, and invoked a rhetorical red herring to deflect from the critique: I wasn’t a Christian, so we’re going to disagree on this.

The only problem is, ignoring a critique does not invalidate the critique. Or, to quote Aldous Huxley, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

Or put another way, exposure of genuine logical fallacies and hermeneutical inconsistencies are valid regardless of who is pointing it out. The fact that one is not part of a particular group does not negate said person’s critiques of said group. To argue that one must first be a devout, believing Muslim in order to truly understand and therefore critique Islam is just as fallacious when it is applied to Christianity. (And qal w’homer, it is all the more fallacious when the one doing the critiquing has, in fact, been formally trained in both a graduate Christian seminary and at the doctoral level in one of the top state universities in the nation.) And, Dr. West would be among the first to affirm the notion that a person need not be properly accredited or affiliated in order to convey truth, be it an unaccredited college or an unaffiliated congregant. Dr. West knows that one’s lack of affiliation and accreditation does not limit one’s ability to speak truth.

And yet, rather than answer the question, Dr. West dismissed the critique arguing that since I was an agnostic, my point of view was not binding upon Christians (again, a non sequitur).

So, Dr. James McGrath called Dr. West on his dodge and non sequitur, describing Dr. West’s comments regarding same-sex marriage to be “so ridiculously illogical as to be bizarre”.

In response to this, Dr. West, rather than acknowledge that he had dodged the issue at hand, doubled down on my agnosticism, claiming,

“I didn’t say Bob wasn’t a Christian. BOB SAYS Bob isn’t a Christian. Bob calls himself an agnostic.”

And while the statement is true (although I would ask whether one can question the unprovable faith claims made by a group and still retain affiliation with said group), it continues to miss the point: Dr. West’s entire critique of whatever my personal religious beliefs may or may not be was a diversionary tactic designed to avoid addressing his inconsistent interpretation of passages, as well as his selective invoking of the “revelation” of the Bible. Dr. McGrath went so far as to remind Dr. West that the Israelite Exodus from Egypt is also “revealed” – (in fact, they named an entire book after it!) – and yet, Dr. West has elected to follow the interpretative conclusions of the so-called biblical “minimalists” and deny the biblical accounts of the Exodus as they are presented in the Bible. Dr. West has even written in defense of “minimalism”, and has argued that those who insist upon the historicity of the very “revealed” biblical accounts of the Exodus “are the true distorters of Scripture.”

Once again, Dr. West rejects slavery and the suppression of women, and rejects the historical biblical Exodus, but when it comes to marriage equality for same-sex couples before the law, he suddenly remembers that Scripture is “revelation” that must be codified into secular state law for all time. The selective inconsistency is obvious.

Joel Watts also chimed in with a thoughtful piece asking whether the religious preference of an individual actually matters in a scholarly discussion about the Bible. Mr. Watts rightly challenges Dr. West’s fallacy that “acceptable facts can only generate from acceptable quarters,” and rightly concludes:

“…who the hell cares what religion someone is if their statements are supported by the philosopher’s trinity — facts, logic, and reasoning? Further, the religion of the person, or the lack thereof, does not in anyway limit them from contributing to a discussion on said religion.”

But meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice, an interesting thing began to occur on James McGrath’s blog; a conversation broke out regarding whether or not I was actually a Christian. I watched as different individuals chimed in with evidence for and against my religious affiliation. The conversation got so bogged down in claims and counterclaims that James suggested that someone take the time to just ask me. So one of the individuals making comments (named “pithom”) did just that: invited me to answer the question once and for all.

And so I did. Here’s the text of my response on Dr. McGrath’s blog:

“that’s not a bad idea. and thanx to pithom for the invitation.

so tell me: where in matthew 25, when the king is separating the sheep from the goats, does it list church attendance, proper position on same-sex marriage, or even belief in the existence of god in the list of reasons given by the king for admission into the kingdom.

where in this passage (matt 25:31-46) does it even mention doing these deeds in the name of jesus?

what is more important: proper action or proper belief?

i say action. lived life is superior to believed life, and i’m not even from missouri.

kind and just deeds are not means to an end; they are ends in themselves. we should not do kind things so we can get something in return (like a hypothetical star in a hypothetical crown in a hypothetical heaven). rather, we should do what is right because it is the right thing to do, understanding ‘right’ as that which builds up self and neighbor and community, and makes others’ lives a little brighter.

if we take care of each other, the afterlife will take care of itself. and if there is none, then we still lived a great life, and our children will speak highly of us at the city gates. and if there is, then all the better.

stop arguing about life after death and start living the one before it. live it well. be merciful. be fair. and love one another.

however you define that, that’s what i am.”

Of course, anyone who has ever read my “about me” page on this blog or my Wikipedia user page should be able to ascertain the answer. But still, my personal beliefs (or lack thereof) are not the point!

Rather, the points are twofold:

  1. One’s personal religious or nonreligious affiliation should not matter in a professional, scholarly debate about the subject matter. Unless one appeals to one’s own faith as evidence in support of an argument, one’s personal religious beliefs, or lack thereof, should be moot. As long as the argument is rooted in facts, evidence, logic, and reason, then it doesn’t matter if the scholar is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, capitalist, communist, or Martian: sound arguments are sound regardless of who makes them.
  2. The entire discussion over the fate of my eternal soul and my status as a Christian was, from the outset, a diversion from the issue at hand: Jim West’s inconsistent hermeneutic, and his selective appeal to the “revealed” status of Christian Scripture when the condemnation of homosexuality was under discussion. The entire discussion of my agnosticism is moot.

So, Joel Watts decided to have some fun with the situation, and after asking me if he could, posted an online poll asking whether or not I am “saved”. But the poll was designed to highlight the above two points: that in scholarship, one’s religious affiliation or non-affiliation is moot as long as the arguments are sound.

Interestingly, Joel informs me that at last count, with 29 votes cast, over half of those casting votes apparently understand the fallacy of Jim West’s diversionary tactic, and 55% have voted that my religious affiliation “doesn’t matter because facts are facts.” However, I was also intrigued to discover that 34% went ahead and voted “no”, that I’m not saved, and that only a paltry 10% (3 votes) voted that I am, in fact, “saved”.

Thus, from this data we can conclude two things:

  1. that I had better stock up on otherworldly fire retardant, and more importantly,
  2. we can see why fallacious appeals to an opponent’s lack of faith (like screaming “ATHEIST!”) are so effective: nearly half of those casting votes cast judgment on the fate of my soul rather than notice that the poll was designed to test whether voters could recognize the logical fallacy of appealing to my moot religious affiliation. (But I do offer my thanks to those three brave souls who consider me saved. ;-)

I want my friend to change his opinion on same-sex marriage. I want him to see the beam in his own eye – the inconsistency of his hermeneutic – that everyone else so clearly sees. I want him to see that using an appeal to the revelatory nature of the Bible to suppress the civil (not religious, but civil) rights and privileges of LGBTQ individuals is just as wrong as when it was done to slaves in the 1860s and to women in the early 1900s. I want him to stop posting embarrassing (and to many, offensive) comparisons between homosexuality and criminal activities like polygamy and pedophilia, and lumping them all together by arguing, “insofar as they are deviations, they are similar.” Such comments are not worthy of scholars and professionals, but are instead what we have come to expect from many fundamentalist preachers and politicians. I want my friend to change his scholarly opinion, and I want him to stop attacking the beliefs (or non-beliefs) of other scholars making valid points. Again, such sloppy rhetoric is not worthy of scholars.

Rather than make my personal beliefs the topic of conversation, I simply ask my friend to apply a consistent hermeneutic to his reading of the Bible, and to stop singling out gays for special condemnation.


for the back story:

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the role of archaeology in biblical history (edición español)

Archaeologist Dr. Shimon Gibson lectures

The Chilean La Tercera recently published an article entitled “Historias bíblicas: lo que la ciencia ya decifró y las preguntas pendientes,” or, “Bible Histories: What Science has Deciphered (and the remaining questions).” La Tercera offers a link to a digital paper copy here.

The Mexican Jewish website Enlace Judio also ran the story, as did Terrae Antiqvae (complete with pictures).

The article discusses the role of archaeology as a science in relation to the Bible and biblical history. The article surveys many of the recent claims and recounts various archaeologists’ interpretations of these discoveries.

Below is an English translation of the story by Marcelo Cordova and Jennifer Abate.


Bible Histories: What Science has Deciphered (and questions pending)

In recent years, a string of findings has been an unprecedented boost to archeology studying characters and events depicted in sacred texts, from the existence of King David to the tomb of Herod the Great.

by MARCELO CORDOVA / JENNIFER ABATE

After a backbreaking day of work under the Israel sun, the team of archaeologists from Union College in Jerusalem was preparing for a break amongst the ruins of Tel Dan, an ancient northern city. But before resting, Gila Cook, one of those in charge of the team, noticed an unusual shadow on a wall that had been exposed after digging what had been the main entrance.

It was July 21, 1993 and, as the explorer relates the story, approaching the spot, she discovered a piece of basalt protruding from the floor and on it was a text written in ancient Aramaic. Excited, she called loudly to Avraham Biran, chief researcher of the group. His surprise was immediate: it was an inscription about a military victory of the king of Damascus from the ninth century BC which mentioned the “King of Israel” and “house of David.”

This news was a historic and scientific success. It was the first time that a non-biblical reference was found that proved the existence of the monarch, the central figure of the Christian scriptures and recognized not only for his great artistic and warrior skills, but also for being an ancestor of Jesus. After centuries of exploration and speculation, which even talked about David having been invented by Hebrew scribes, a text was discovered that had been written by an enemy of the monarch.

That was the starting point for a string of discoveries which in recent years has launched an unprecedented boost to biblical archeology. A discipline that emerged after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947), when scientists stopped considering religious texts as a history that could only be demystified, and started using the Bible as a written compass to guide their excavations.

Recent efforts to search the sacred texts have paid off, achieving the illustration of episodes like the battle of David and Goliath and events related to the life of Jesus, which have been enriched with details that remained lost in time (see graphic). However, in the process scientists have also unearthed and brought to light relics that pose questions to some biblical passages, such as the Gospel of Judas, which seems to show how Jesus asked his apostle to turn him into the authorities. The role of testing and proving and, sometimes of rebuttal, is one of the major challenges of biblical archeology, Robert Cargill, an archaeologist at the University California, told La Tercera.

“Archaeology helps us improve our understanding of the Bible. In the same way that a site visit helps to understand its historical legacy. Sometimes it provides evidence that contradicts it. For example, there is no evidence of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt or of the Flood. But there are many findings in Jerusalem and other places that do support these texts,” says Cargill. He adds: “The idea is not to completely discard the Bible altogether just because some passages can not be verified. This book is an ancient piece of literature that should be examined for what it is: an ancient collection of documents that do not necessarily give us information about what happened then, but about the beliefs of the people from that ancient world.”

Verifying the Scriptures

If one asks the experts what are the most salient findings of recent years, the names of some places and characters tend to be repeated. One of them is one that stunned the world in 2007 when the explorers, led by archaeologist Ehud Netzer, announced the discovery of the tomb of King Herod the Great, in the Herodium, south of Jerusalem. The monarch, who was appointed by the Romans to govern Judea from 37 BC and 4 BC, is described in the Bible as the instigator of the “slaughter of the innocents” (at the knowledge of the birth of Jesus, he ordered the deaths of children under two years old in Bethlehem).

But apart from this notoriously sad reputation, he was known for his grand architectural vision; he ordered the construction of the walls around the Old City of Jerusalem and the almost mythical fortress of Masada, the last bastion of the Jewish Revolt against the Romans in 73 AD.  Most archaeologists assumed that he had been buried at the Herodium, but it was the finding of some monumental steps 6.5 m wide, which were built for Herod’s funeral procession, described in detail by the historian Josephus, which eventually led Netzer to a large broken sarcophagus 2.5 meters long. While inside it no human remains were found, the detailed ornamentation and the surrounding buildings of that place causes the experts to claim that the body of the monarch did lie there.

Netzer explained in 2007 that this discovery put an end to 30 years of research and gave support to the legendary ambition of Herod. Herodium is the only site that carries his name and was chosen by the king to immortalize himself, integrating a huge palace located in the desert hilltop. “This finding is significant because it puts into perspective Herod, a key figure in Christianity,” he told The Guardian.

Illustrating how a king produced a majestic tomb helps – Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at the U. Tel Aviv, told La Tercera – the specialists to delve into the economic, social, political and demographic contexts that marked this era in which these texts were written. A view shared by Michael Coogan, a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College (USA), who told La Tercera: “If we take the example of an opera, the Bible is the script and archeology is the setting in which it takes place.”

While in recent years there have discoveries made in various parts of Israel – including a synagogue in the town of Migdal where Jesus would have prayed regularly, and 2,000 year-old houses in Nazareth that reveal a village of just 50 homes of humble lifestyle. The vast majority is concentrated in Jerusalem. Remains of pottery and other objects show that the city was inhabited from 4000 BC, although it was King David who established it as the capital of the united kingdom in 1000 BC.

And it was his son who built the first temple of the city. The Book of Kings recounts how Solomon brought his Egyptian wife to the city of David, where he built his home and a large wall. In 2010, archaeologists found a big wall in Jerusalem from the tenth century BC providing support to the existence of a royal palace and a fortified capital under the control of a king. In addition to an outdoor structure, which is 10 m high and 70 m long, a monumental tower and a large entrance were found.

“This is the first time we’ve run into a structure that conforms to the descriptions of the works of Solomon. This fits into the biblical story and it enhances our ability to establish a link with the wall of Jerusalem. It is very probable that the Bible, as the stories of many dynasties, preserves a core of truth,” said archaeologist Eilat Mazar to Haaretz news group.

The Chapter on Jesus

The evidence found that is tied to the most recent Scripture passages – especially to that of the life of Jesus, his family and apostles – is also coming to light in the form of objects and texts. In 1968 explorers found the remains of a man in his twenties in a cave northeast of Jerusalem. The find was considered unique because although the Romans were known to have crucified thousands of rebels, thieves, and deserters, a victim of this technique had never been found. And his remains corroborated the biblical description of such execution: the man’s left ankle had a nail that went through 11 cm and a small wooden box between the bone and the nail head to prevent release of the cross leg.

This evidence not only corresponds to a similar period as that of the crucifixion of Jesus mentioned in the Bible, but, according to experts, it verifies the description of his funeral. For decades it was believed that the Romans were limited to throwing the corpses into mass graves to be devoured by animals and thus impose fear.  But, this body showed that, on occasion, funeral proceedings were permitted similar to those mentioned in the Scriptures.

Recent explorations in and around Jerusalem have uncovered not only references linked to the death of Christ, but also to the image that his miracles propagated and to the characters that surrounded him, such as John the Baptist.  Seven years ago, works in the neighborhood of Silwan gave the location of a pool where, according to the Bible, Jesus gave sight to a blind man and in 2008; while underwater archaeologists recovered from the Bay of Alexandria (Egypt) a vessel of the late 1st century AD that says Dia chrstou o goistais (“Christ the magician”).

According to Franck Goddio of the Oxford Center of Maritime Archaeology, it would be the earliest known reference to Jesus outside the Bible. The words in this inscription further illustrate how Christianity and paganism were intertwined during the first years after the crucifixion. The investigator told Discovery News that it is very likely that some magician had inscribed “Christ” in the bowl to legitimize his own powers by invoking his name: “It is very probable that in Alexandria, where one also found one of Cleopatra’s palaces, the existence of Jesus and his legendary miracles were known.”

In 2004, archaeologists found a clue to the legacy of John the Baptist, when they located a cave in Jerusalem that may have been used by him for some of his ceremonies. The site, 21 meters long, was excavated between 800 and 500 BC and includes a series of carvings from the 5th century A.D. depicting the image of a man with a staff. There is no direct evidence of the link between this place and John, but the British archaeologist Shimon Gibson told Fox News that the carvings, combined with a stone used for foot washing and the proximity to the place where John lived, suggests that the cave was used by him.

“Apparently, this site was adopted by John the Baptist, who wanted a place to bring people to perform his rituals and propagate his ideas about baptism,” added Gibson. Amihai Mazar, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told La Tercera that despite the lack of confirmation of the link, such findings illustrate the customs and rituals of that time: “Now we can reconstruct how people lived, how they viewed their settlements and what their economic and social structures were.”

Subject for Dispute

It is clear that these findings have not been without controversy, and they are almost always preceded by sensationalistic media. One of the most iconic episodes in this regard came last year when it was announced that Noah’s Ark had been discovered atop Mount Ararat (Turkey). After a series of criticisms for its inconsistencies in terms of dating, this finding was branded false.

Something similar could be taking place with the announcement a few days ago of the alleged discovery of two nails used to crucify Jesus. The documentary, guided by Simcha Jacobovici (who years ago said he had found the tomb of Jesus), mixed evidence with a series of assumptions to announce the discovery of these objects in a tomb explored in 1990 and which, for some unknown reason, ended up at an anthropologist’s laboratory in Tel Aviv, where they remained forgotten.

The main argument of the filmmaker is that an ossuary was also found in the tomb that has scientific backing and a connection with the death of Jesus: an receptacle with human remains and the inscription “Caiaphas,” the name of the High Priest who organized the capture of Jesus. Robert Cargill, who is part of a committee of U.S. archaeologists that refutes baseless claims, tells La Tercera: “These type of assumptions are made by amateurs, not professional archaeologists. Usually, they are scams to earn money or convince people of a certain faith claim.”

The subject about which scientists have not yet achieved consensus is the Gospel of Judas. The full text, which is 1,700 years old and written in Egyptian Coptic Christian, continues to cause controversy, not because they doubt its authenticity, but for its meaning. While the Bible portrays Judas as a traitor, the initial translation shows the apostle as the closest friend and disciple of Christ, who sacrifices his teacher at his request; this involves a reinterpretation of biblical texts. Another analysis, however, postulates that the text does not say this, but rather that Judas was a “demon” and that he, in fact, betrayed Jesus.

Researchers are divided in their analysis of what remains to be discovered. Some speak of cities or more details of King Solomon, but the same Robert Cargill says the key requirement, such as it has been until now, is discovering more about the daily life of the society in which the writings were produced: “A dream find would be something like the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of documents that opens a new window to understanding how these people thought and interacted thousands of years ago. I’d love to find something written in a new language and decipher it, or find a palace or a temple, because no serious explorer ever says he has found the Ark of the Covenant, the cross of Christ, or the Holy Grail.”

if moses had social networking

Call it Google Exodus. Call it Passover in the modern world. What would the Exodus story have looked like had it taken place today? Or what if Moses had social networking? It would have looked something like this:

HT: Bill Schniedewind

southwestern baptist theological seminary acquires dead sea scrolls fragments

A Fragment of the Dead Sea Scrollsaccording to an associated press article, southwestern baptist theological seminary has acquired fragments of the dead sea scrolls.

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is set to unveil three newly acquired biblical Dead Sea Scroll fragments.

Southwestern spokesman Thomas White says the fragments acquired Tuesday include Scriptures from the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Daniel.

first it was princeton theological seminary and the university of chicago who owned scroll fragments. then azusa pacific acquired some fragments. now it’s southwestern baptist who has some.

my question is: how many fragments are in private hands? and why didn’t southwestern baptist state from whom they purchased the scroll fragments?

Southwestern purchased its fragments from a private collector for an undisclosed amount and is in negotiation for future pieces.

azusa pacific university stated very clearly that they purchased their fragments from lee biondi of biondi rare books in venice beach, california. why is the seller’s name not being disclosed in southwestern baptist’s transaction? i can understand not wanting to state the amount paid (which helps combat looting and illegal sales of antiquities), but keeping the seller’s name anonymous??

congrats to southwestern baptist. who is next? fresno state? pasadena city college?

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