Tag Archives: Inerrancy

James Barr on Inerrancy

Please forgive the paucity of posts recently. My wife is pregnant and on bedrest, so other responsibilities have taken priority. I ran across a lengthy paragraph in James Barr’s Fundamentalism that I thought merited note, though. From page 51:

In fundamentalism the truth of the Bible, its inerrancy, understood principally as correspondence with external reality and events, is fed into the interpretive process at its very beginning. That is to say, one does not first interpret the passage on the basis of linguistic and literary structure, and then raise the question whether this is true as a matter of correspondance to external reality or to historical events. On the contrary, though linguistic and literary structure are respected as guides, and indeed conservative literature contains a good deal of boasting about the command of these disciplines by conservative interpreters, the principle of the inerrancy of scripture has an overriding function. It dominates the interpretative process entirely. The questions: Might linguistic and literary form suggest that the passage is a myth or legen? Might it be mistaken in matters of historical fact? Might it be something generated not by external events which occurred in this sequence, but by problems in the inner experience of the early church?—such questions are therefore eliminated from the interpretative process from the beginning. The fundamentalist interpreter may consider them, but only in so far as they are forced upon him by the arguments of critical scholars. They do not form part of his own interpretative procedure at all. This means, however, that though linguistic and literary form are respected as guides, they operate as guides only under the overriding control of the principle of inerrancy. The question is, therefore, which of the various interpretations is supported by the linguistic and literary evidence, under the overriding assumptions that the passage is inerrant as a description of external events and realities? The passage is inerrant: the only question is, which is the correct path to the necessarily inerrant meaning?


Quotable: Jill Middlemas

I think this quote is relevant for those who would dogmatically assert either the historical inerrancy or inaccuracy of the biblical texts. From The Templeless Age (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 10:

[T]he purpose of the Hebrew Bible is not to record history, but to preserve an interpretation of events from the perspective of the interaction of a people and their god.

The Angel of Yahweh in Early Hebrew Bible Narrative

There are two general approaches to explaining the angel of Yahweh in the early biblical narratives where his identity seems to be conflated or confused with the identity of God himself. The most prevalent view is that the angel, as a divine messenger, represents his patron so completely that he may be referred to and even described as the patron. The other view is that the word “angel” is simply an interpolation where it was originally Yahweh himself interacting with humanity. As I have been compiling research I have come across the former position more and more in recent research (two examples are Erik Eynikel, “The Angel in Samson’s Birth Narrative: Judg 13,” in Angels: The Concept of Celestial Beings—Origins, Development and Reception [Friedrich V. Reiterer, et al., eds.; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007], 109–23; Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009]). In this post I’d like to explain why I find the latter view to be far more convincing.

I count 36 occurrences of מלאך יהוה in Gen-Judg, with an additional six occurrences of מלאך אלהים. The first of all occurrences (canonically) is in the story of Hagar’s fleeing from Sarah. The confusion of identity here occurs in v. 13, where the narrative explains that Hagar “called upon the name of Yahweh who spoke to her.” Hagar’s next comment in the Hebrew is unclear, but we should probably read after the NRSV (based on the name given to the well), “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” This would echo sentiments found in our other angel of Yahweh pericopes (Gen 32:30; Exod 3:6; Jdg 6:2223; 13:22). Exod 33:20, which states that no human will see God and live, is alluded to in each example. This particular story makes more sense with the word “angel” removed from vv. 7, 9, 10, and 11, and with Hagar speaking directly with Yahweh.

The next occurrence of the angel of Yahweh is in the Akedah from Genesis 22. The angel of Yahweh is said to stop Abraham immediately before he sacrifices Isaac. The narrative again makes perfect sense with the word “angel” removed from vv. 11 and 15. In v. 16 we have Yahweh speaking, but the phrase “says Yahweh” appears. This does not necessarily indicate reported speech, though, and is unlikely to be original. It appears nowhere else in Genesis and it never appears anywhere else associated with any angel of Yahweh. In v. 14, the explanation of the name of the mountain could be “On the mountain of Yahweh it shall be provided,” or “On the mountain of Yahweh he will be seen.” In both these stories the notion of seeing God appears to have been obscured to hide God’s own presence.

Exodus 3 is our next pericope. In that story, Moses speaks with the angel of Yahweh. The angel is only mentioned in v. 2, and afterward God himself is the interlocutor. In v. 6 God even states, “I am the God of your father . . .” Moses even lowers his gaze because he is afraid to look upon God. Of considerable importance here is that v. 2’s statement “and the angel of Yahweh appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush” does not fit the narrative. It preempts Moses’ noticing the bush (which follows “and he looked, and behold!”) and his moving close enough to it for the entity to speak out of it. The most likely reason is that that statement is a late interpolation meant to contextualize the comments that followed. Without the statement, it is God himself speaking to Moses.

Next we move to two narratives from Judges, namely Gideon’s call and Samson’s birth narrative. In the first (Judg 6:11–24), the angel comes to Gideon, who appears not to recognize him, and states that Yahweh is with him. He then announces Gideon’s call to lead the Israelites. In vv. 11, 12, 21, and 22 the text has “angel of Yahweh,” but in vv. 14 and 16 Gideon is represented as speaking directly to Yahweh. In v.  17, Gideon actually asks for proof that he is speaking specifically to Yahweh. In v. 20 it is “angel of God.” This is peculiar, and the only other uses of “angel of God” in Gen-Judg also appear in places where the identity of God is mixed up with that of an angel (Gen 21:17; 31:11; Exod 14:19; Judg 13:6, 9). As with other stories, Gideon’s angel speaks as God in the first person with no messenger formula to indicate it is a mediated message. Again we have the allusion to Exod 33:20, but here Gideon laments, “Help me, O Yahweh God, for I have seen the angel of Yahweh face to face!” Exod 33:20 does not place a restriction on seeing the angel of Yahweh, however, it explicitly states that no human can see God himself (and specifically his face, given the context). Gideon’s lament is completely unique, and the story fits perfectly with the other reconstructed narratives if we simply remove each instance of “angel.”

In Samson’s birth narrative (Judg 13:3–23) the interlocutor is described as an angel of Yahweh throughout, but when Manoah realizes to whom he has been speaking he laments, like the others, “we shall surely die, for we have seen God.” Now, the comment could be translated “for we have seen a deity,” in reference to an angel, but, again, this is not what Exod 33:20 says, and the allusion is clearly to that text. V. 19 also provides an interesting problem. It states that, on the angel’s orders, Manoah offered a meat offering on a rock “to Yahweh. And [?] did wonders/wondrously.” There is no subject attached to the participle מפלא, “to be wonderful.” Many translations assume the angel is understood, since he is overseeing the sacrifice (thus, “the angel did wondrously”), while others believe the statement refers to Yahweh, and want it to act as a relative clause (thus, “to Yahweh, to him who works wonders”). The most straightforward reading would probably be, “to Yahweh, and he did wondrously.” This would identify the one who commanded the sacrifice as Yahweh.

This is further supported by the actual command in v. 16, where the text states, “The angel of Yahweh said to Manoah, ‘If you detain me I will not eat your food, but if you want to prepare a burnt offering, offer it to Yahweh.’ (For Manoah did not know that he was the angel of Yahweh).” There is only one scenario in which I can see the narrator providing the explanation if the angel is not actually Yahweh himself, and that’s if the angel is promoting sacrifices to a specific deity to which Manoah otherwise wouldn’t have offered his sacrifice (“‘Oh, and make sure you offer it to Yahweh specifically’ [and Manoah didn’t know that the guy actually worked for Yahweh]”). To me it makes much more sense that the narrator is explaining that Manoah didn’t know he was speaking to Yahweh himself, since it would sound weird for Yahweh to say “offer a sacrifice to Yahweh” if he knew he was speaking to Yahweh.

Three more considerations support the interpolation theory. First, as Samuel Meier has pointed out, there is textual instability among the versions in these narratives. For instance, in Gideon’s narrative, the Septuagint has “angel of Yahweh” throughout. The Septuagint also has additional occurrences of “messenger” all by itself in Samson’s birth narrative and in Hagar’s story, and an additional “messenger of the Lord” at Gen 16:8. Josephus only presents God interacting with Abraham in Genesis 22. The Vulgate makes no mention of an angel in Exod 3:2, mentioning only God appearing. Second, in none of these instances is any self-identification or messenger formula present. Some have claimed that the messenger was so fully identified with his patron that it was not necessary, but there is simply no evidence for this notion. The closest we get is the anomalous “says Yahweh” in Gen 22:16. Third, later versions frequently interpolate the word “angel” where they want to avoid God’s presence, visibility, or participation in something of questionable morality. For instance, in Exod 4:24 both the Septuagint and the targums interpolate the angel to avoid the notion that Yahweh would have come down to kill Moses. In Num 22:20 and 23:4 the Samaritan Pentateuch changes “and God met Balaam” to “and the angel of God met Balaam.” He does not change Num 22:9 or another phrase in Num 23:4, however. In the Palestinian Targum God tells Moses that his angels will pass by him, not that he himself will pass by, as in Exodus 33. Numerous other examples could be brought up, but this should do.

In conclusion, the notion that  the angel is a hypostasis of God or so closely represents him that their identities merge without comment or explanation is simply a rationalization that is subordinate to the necessity of a synchronic or univocal reading of the text. Without such a demand the only logical conclusion is that the angel of Yahweh in these early biblical narratives is a late interpolation, probably from some late- or post-Deuteronomistic writer.

Lady McGaga On Inerrancy

James McGrath has some great thoughts up on his blog regarding the all-too-common notion that those who reject inerrancy are only uncritically appropriating modern naturalistic/humanistic/liberal/whatever presuppositions. He has said pretty much everything I have only recently begun to try to articulate, so I won’t bother to add anything to it, but will just point you to it and suggest you give it a read.

Does the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31 Suggest an End to the Law of Moses?

Recent discussions on my blog and elsewhere have appealed to Jeremiah 31 (and specifically vv. 31–34) as an indication that an end to the law of Moses was prophesied well before the Common Era. In the context of those discussions Jeremiah’s prophecy is being marshaled to undermine the notion that Matthew was a judaizing Christian who asserted the eternal nature of the Law. I’d like to list my reasons for doubting that Jeremiah 31 was intended to suggest a future end to the Law of Moses.

(1) Restoration to former glory is the theme throughout the chapter.

(2) The old “covenant” in v. 32 ≠ the Law of Moses. The Law is a constituent element of the covenant, as seen in v. 33.

(3) No indication is given that any requirements of the Law will be changed, only that it will be interiorized.

(4) The prophecy of restoration in Jer 29:10–14, Jer 32:37–44, and all of Jeremiah 33 parallel 31:31–34 in many ways, but no change in the Law is intimated, only a closer relationship with Yhwh.

(5) Jer 33:17–18 promise there shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, nor will the levitical priests lack someone to offer burnt offerings, grain offerings, and other sacrifices “for all time.”

These considerations lead me to conclude that Jeremiah is prophesying a return to the glory days of the United Monarchy, not a fulfillment of the Law of Moses. The only difference noted between the “new covenant” and the old is that the new will be interiorized by Israel and God, as a result, will be continuously among them. No alteration of the Law of Moses is intimated, and the only references to specific aspects of the law indicate those aspects will remain into perpetuity.

Inerrancy vs. Authority

An assertion I frequently see made by proponents of the doctrine of inerrancy is that Jesus espouses an inerrant view of scripture in Matt 5:18–19 and John 10:35. I can’t agree with this reading of those two scriptures, and disagree that inerrancy is found anywhere in the ancient world. Here are the texts (RSV):

Mat 5:18–19: For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach [them], the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

John 10:35: If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken . . .

Neither of these scriptures, however, asserts anything about infallibility. Rather, the texts asserts the inviolability of the scriptures. Their authority is supreme. Inerrantists frequently conflate the two notions without argument, but the fact that authority does not imply inerrancy is evidenced in the Ketiv/Qere readings in MT. The Masoretes viewed the text as inviolable, and so they would not alter it, but they certainly recognized errors within the text, which they corrected (to the best of their ability) in alternate readings in the margins.

Additionally, there are rhetorical reasons for the assertions made by these two texts. Thom Stark discusses this in his book, The Human Faces of God:

By the time Matthew’s gospel was written, there had already been mass conversions of Gentiles to Christian Judaism. The policy of Paul and others was that the laws of Moses did not apply to the Gentiles, and this policy was highly controversial. Many Jewish Christians dissented from Paul’s position, arguing that the laws of Moses were still in effect. Matthew’s gospel seems to take that stance of opposition to the policy of Paul and other gentile churches. In Matthew, Jesus says that “until heaven and earth disappear, not one letter, not even a stroke of a letter, will disappear from the law.” This phrase, “until heaven and earth disappear,” is an idiom in Hebrew which basically means, “until forever.” In other words, in Matthew, Jesus says that the laws of Moses will never become irrelevant. There will never be a time when they should not be obeyed.

Luke’s position is the opposite. He states, “And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail,” but he also states in the verse preceding, “The law and the prophets [were] until John.” For Luke, it is difficult for the law to fail, but it happened when John began preaching the gospel. The two gospels preach opposite positions on the question of the role of the law of Moses in nascent Christianity, putting their arguments in the mouth of Christ for maximum rhetorical impact.

John 10 is also of little help to the inerrantist position. Not only does it refer to the text’s authority and not its infallibility, but it also couches the notion in a conditional phrase. “If he called them gods, and if the law cannot be broken” (the “if” is elided in the subordinate conditional clause). In this case, one can’t even assert that what we have is Jesus’ position. He is taking up the position of the Jews regarding their law in trying to show their charge to be scripturally groundless. At most, we could say he might agree with the propositions he forwards.

In the Mail: Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God

Thanks to the generosity of a reader, I received a copy today of Thom Stark’s new volume, The Human Faces of God. I’m planning on reviewing the book on my blog, and since my term ends this week I should actually have time to read it. Many thanks to Ed.