When the Bible’s Word is not the Best Word, or, What to do when Scripture is Wrong

This morning I was involved in a discussion (on facebook, unfortunately, but then “discussion” is a generous term for what took place) on who is the best philosopher in the “Paul and the Philosophers” course I am taking. In the midst of this discussion, Paul himself was pulled into the rankings. Interestingly, Paul was first in none of our listings. Of all of us, I placed him the highest – second, behind the Jewish philosopher Jacob Taubes. For me at least, part of this was tongue and cheek, but I was also partly serious; I do like Taubes more than Paul.

How can this be? Paul is a part of my scriptures and Taubes is decidedly not. I’ve been spending the rest of the day with this problem in the back of my mind, partially because I figured that I’d better have an answer just in case a member from my congregation last summer came knocking.

The working answer I have come up with is that something being canon has little to do with how compelling, helpful, stimulating, or enjoyable it is; it may even have less to do with being “right” than I would comfortably admit. Rather, something being canon speaks to the level of investment I have in the text. The letters of Paul are a part of the book we have been given to order our lives; Taubes is a badass Jew who I just happen to like a lot.

Now I really do like Paul quite a bit (partially because Taubes has shown me how cool he is) so he doesn’t serve as a particularly good example of my point. So with that I turn to the outright disturbing tale of slaughter and genocide found in Joshua and the utterly dull and entirely antiquated collection of laws found in Leviticus. I like all of the philosophers we read in this course more than I like these two books – hell, I probably even like Bertram Russell more than these books (though I would entertain debate on this point). However, this is just simply not the point. I can read something by Berty, disagree with it or find it completely uninteresting, and then set it aside, untroubled and ready to move on. Likewise, I can find myself uncompelled Zizek’s psychoanalysis and leave it be. Joshua and Leviticus, on the other hand, I must perpetually return to, allowing them to haunt and discomfort me. No matter how dull or repulsive, I need to wrestle with them, asking questions of them and finding ways for them to elicit questions from me.

Paul is a part of measurement up against which I measure my life and Taubes is not. It’s too bad; I would prefer Taubes.


11 comments on “When the Bible’s Word is not the Best Word, or, What to do when Scripture is Wrong

  1. geraldens says:

    I should make a quick clarification, lest one think that my difficulties with Scripture are Marcion in some way (Old Testamen: bad; New Testament: good). As far as I’m concerned, the Pastoral Epistles (the Timothys and Titus) are also far behind all of the philosophers we studied – perhaps they are on par with Russell. Ecclesiastes, meanwhile, far outstrips Taubes and virtually anyone else I’ve ever read.

  2. Go read Mary Douglas’ Leviticus as Literature and then talk to me about Leviticus . . . of course that being said it begs the question of our need for commentary or of how commentary functionally becomes primary.

    • geraldens says:

      I was hoping that someone would contest my assessment of which books are not compelling! I’ve been given enough of a glimpse into how carefully the Old Testament and Old Testament books were put together to figure that there had to be some Leviticus lovers out there. I shall put Leviticus as Literature on the list.

      You anticipated my response, as to how commentaries become primary. For me a good example that shows this odd relationship between book and commentary is Yoder`s reading of Jeremiah. I don`t really find his interpretation convincing. Despite this, I continue to find his reading compelling. In other words, it would seem that I like Yoder`s commentary on Jeremiah more than Jeremiah itself. I don`t think this possibility is ruled out when an interpretation is correct. So, perhaps I`ll end up liking Douglas more than Leviticus.

  3. Theophilus says:

    I’m a little bit confused about the title, and specifically the phrase “when Scripture is wrong.” To what sort of “wrongness” are you referring? For example, in the Joshua case, are you contesting the historical accuracy of the conquest account, the genocidal morality of the book, or perhaps something else?

    • geraldens says:

      I will confess that in including the second part of my title I largely succumbed to the lure of rhetorical punch. Having said that, I did succumb so I will attempt to answer your question.

      The relationship between historical accuracy and canonical authority is interesting, but it is not what I am exploring here. I am more interested in exploring the possibilities for contesting the truthfulness of the message a book or passage presents. Often this will be ethical, but it need not be; in this reasoning we could also question a biblical author’s view of God.

      Now I should make clear that I am not suggesting we evaluate each passage in the Bible (naming it “right” or “wrong”) up against some sort of objective standard or objective truth – the Mennonite temptation here is to (idolatrously) evaluate Scripture on the basis of a pacifist ethic. Rather, my point is that we should be open to the possibility that, precisely as a people formed around the Bible, there may be times when we need say that we disagree with some of the divergent views within that same Bible. At the same time, as I write in my post, this disagreement should neither be easy nor settled. So, yes I do disagree with the genocidal morality of Joshua; I also disagree with the extremely low view of women that the author of the Pastoral Epistles presents.

      • Theophilus says:

        That clears things up for me a great deal; thanks. It still ends up being a strong statement, though, and other alternatives exist. For instance, the pastoral epistles’ negative statements about women might be qualified being implicitly conditional upon circumstances that are not explicitly defined in the text; this may be helpful in finding some coherency in the otherwise seriously weird stream of reasoning in 1 Timothy 2, for instance, by way of the argument that the author was primarily concerned with resisting the matriarchal cult of Artemis. In the Joshua case, questioning the book’s historical veracity in depicting the thoroughness of the Israelites’ extermination of the Canaanites allows for the possibility that the book’s genocidal language is an exaggeration made for rhetorical and pedagogical effect. But these sorts of views most often occur within a viewpoint that argue that the Scriptures are left to us by God as a necessarily coherent account of himself and many of his dealings with humanity and the world, and this sort of move in the area of the doctrine of Scripture is rather contested.

  4. geraldens says:

    Yeah. I’m not suggesting that we throw out those alternatives. In fact, I’ve often used the two examples you give above in various arguments or discussions. I just also think that these arguments can’t always carry us as far as we might like, particularly when we make an effort to be honest in our reading. Historical veracity aside, some of the authors of our scriptures thought that, at least in some cases, genocide was good. No matter the devils he was fighting, the author of the epistles still had a view of women that I find unacceptable – (qualifying his statements usually follow the logic of “why might he have held such a view,” not “that view doesn’t actually exist if we read it in context”).

    • Theophilus says:

      I wonder if our working understandings of the nature of the Scriptures might be different here. Particularly in the New Testament case, I see the plausibility that the author does not consider women automatically inferior, and believe this view is probable because of my belief that the Scriptures testify to one God who does not hold contradictory views about women. But there’s theology in this view, not just exegesis.

      • geraldens says:

        We may have different understandings of Scripture, but I don’t think that this difference is as fundamental as it may appear to be. I too hold that the Scriptures testify to one God who does not hold contradictory views about women, but I believe that they do so as a conversation in which there may tension and even disagreement. I did not always hold this view and it was not easy to accept; in many ways I felt forced into this view through reading the Bible and discovering differing viewpoints that I simply could not reconcile – I discovered much richness in reading Scripture this way, but that came significantly afterwards.

        One example of this conversation that I often like to point to is Jonah read alongside Ezra and Nehemiah, which some have suggested were written at the same time and are representative of the opposite sides of a debate within God’s people. Jonah presents an extremely positive view of foreigners, promoting their inclusion and emphasizing the importance of mission; the latter books display an extremely negative view towards foreigners and emphasize the importance of building walls and keeping God’s people pure. There is an obvious sense in which these views need not be mutually exclusive, but I think that to too easily combine them would be to betray them. Further, other themes are not so easily reconciled. Is kingship and an Israelite kingdom a good idea? It depends which author/book you consult.

        As far as the views of the author of the pastorals goes, we are obviously entering into speculative ground. However, it simply strikes me as odd that the only means the author could find to counter the influence of heretical cults, was to, with no qualifications whatsoever defame all women (they are inferior intellectually and morally, gossips, unable to control their impure desires, and are easily seduced by lies – the use of deragatory language does not help his case) and severely restrict their role in both church and household, despite holding a positive view of them. Surely this was a unique circumstance, and as I said, this is all speculation; however, the moves he makes still strike me as very strange if he does hold women to be equal to men.

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