“aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (7): Christopher M. Hays

Today’s “aha” moments is by Christopher M. Hays (DPhil, New Testament Studies, University of Oxford). After completing his degree, Hays was a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow for 3 years, and is now teaching at Fundación Universitaria Seminario Bíblico de Colombia.

Hays thinks a lot about how early Christians believed that money ought to be used, a subject he calls “Christian wealth ethics.” He is the author of Luke’s Wealth Ethics: A Study in Their Coherence and Character (Mohr Siebeck, 2010), and his current research moves beyond the New Testament to investigate the teachings and practices of early Christians in the era before the rise of Constantine. He is also the co-editor (with Christopher B. Ansberry) of Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism (SPCK/Baker Academic, 2013).

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Graduate students are willing and eager to do miserably boring jobs for woeful wages. Professors, who also do a lot of boring work for only slightly less woeful wages, are willing and eager to give their grad students the worst of that drudge-work. (It’s called “mentoring.”)

That’s how, in 2003, I found myself naively happy to be cataloguing “textual variants” for 2 Peter, helping my boss and mentor, Gene Green, on his then-forthcoming commentary for Baker. (Not all ancient copies of biblical manuscripts are identical, so scholars have to decide which “variants” are likely to be older, and therefore more likely original.)

Now most textual variants are tremendously insignificant, which is why, when I found a slightly-less-insignificant one in 2 Peter 2:15, I felt a rush of nerd adrenaline.

2 Peter 2:15 mentions false teachers who have gone astray like Balaam, the prophet from Numbers 22:5 who was hired by King Balak to curse the Israelites. Some manuscripts of 2 Peter 2:15 called him “Balaam son of Beor” (which is what Numbers 22:5 calls him); other manuscripts of 2 Peter 2:15 call him “Balaam of Bosor,” which, as we’ll see in a moment, makes no sense at all.

“Beor” is a person’s name; it was the name of Balaam’s dad (his patronymic). Bosor is the name of a city (a.k.a. Bosorra). The problem is: the older, better manuscripts called him “Balaam of Bosor,” but Balaam wasn’t from anywhere near Bosor, which is in the land of Gilead. According to Numbers 22:5, Balaam was from “Pethor, which is on the Euphrates, in the land of Amaw.”

Later copyists, therefore, changed “Bosor” to “Beor” so that the text makes more sense.

So I asked myself, why did the author of 2 Peter call him “Balaam of Bosor”? I poked around, and then an answer suggested itself.

If you are a normal person, reading text criticism is about as much fun as un-sedated dental surgery, but I’m asking you nicely to hang with the next couple of paragraphs to see how I came to understand that the author of 2 Peter was himself confused about a historical detail.

The basic problem is that there was another guy in the Old Testament whose name sounded a lot like Balaam’s. Instead of being “Balaam son of Beor,” his name was “Bela son of Beor.”

The name Beor actually occurs in a genealogy (a king-list) that is copied three times in the Old Testament (Gen 36.33; 1 Cor 1.44; Job 42:17c [LXX only]). That genealogy mentions a king whose name was “Bela son of Beor,” who in turn was succeeded by a guy from the city of Bosorra (Bosor). And in one version of the genealogy (the LXX of Job 42), the king “Bela son of Beor” is actually called “Balak son of Beor”.

Now the King Balak son of Beor in this genealogy is a different King Balak (of Moab) than the one that hired Balaam son of Beor in Numbers. But you can see how people might get confused: same patronymic, similar sounding first names. You’re probably confused already! And so were some ancient Jews.

In fact, when you read the genealogy in ancient Aramaic translations of the Old Testament (the “targums”), which were already popular at the time of Jesus, you can see that they sometimes actually changed the name of King Bela/Balak son of Beor to Balaam son of Beor.

Since there was already a history of confusion over the Balaams and Balaks and Beors in the Numbers story and the genealogy, it seemed really understandable that the author of 2 Peter would be caught up in the flow and reproduce the same mistake.

What more natural way is there to explain the fact that he used “Bosor” instead of “Beor” than to say that he mixed up the patronymic of one person in the genealogy with the similar sounding hometown of the next person in the genealogy?

Yeah, yeah; I know it’s dull stuff. But I was fascinated, and so Prof. Green (who really was and is a brilliant mentor to me) fanned the flame, and helped me produce my first scholarly publication (an insignificant note in Filologia Neotestamentaria; if you are an insomniac, you can look it up here).

It was at that point that my friends started to rain on my parade.

One of my buddies asked, “So, don’t you believe in inerrancy anymore?” I was taken aback. I was pretty sure I still believed in inerrancy. But he explained, no, no I didn’t; after all, I had just said that Peter (no scare-quotes at this point in my life) made a mistake.

(BTW, this totally messes up the silly idea that Scripture is “inerrant in the original autographs”; we of course will never have the original autographs, but in 2 Peter 2:15, for example, the most-original reading we have is the more problematic one; the later manuscripts in 2 Peter 2:15 are the ones that are without error!)

Then came my “Aha” moment: I realized that I thought Peter had made an historical mistake, and I realized that it didn’t make me trust the message of Scripture less. The agenda of 2 Peter (to say that false prophets in his day were doing bad things, like Balaam did) is not remotely altered by the author’s snafu about Balaam’s surname.

In this case (though not in every case) the veracity of the theological message is in no way dependent upon the historical detail of the Old Testament illustration used to underscore the point. So I saw no reason to doubt 2 Peter’s criticism of the false teachers because of this tiny lacuna in his historical knowledge.

But for a lot of my friends, that wouldn’t be the case. In popular evangelical discourse (such as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy), the historical and scientific inerrancy of Scripture is adduced as the reason one can trust Scripture’s message about God’s redemption in Christ.

So, if there are historical or scientific errors in the Bible, then the theological veracity of the Bible’s message is also jeopardized.

The conservatives have a point here; we can’t just pretend that historicity is entirely irrelevant to the Bible. The live debate among conservative and liberal Christian scholars has to do with how much historicity the Bible itself claims to possess and how much Christians are obliged to affirm.

We all agree (at least in principle) that inductive research should help us determine which of the portions of the Bible aim to be historical. We all agree (at least in principle) that a biblical text that doesn’t aim to be historical can still be true. For example, none of us will argue that the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32) is “false” even though we all agree—since it is a parable—it never happened in history.

But how much history is there? How much history needs to be there?

I’m inclined to say that lots of texts that evangelicals consider historical probably shouldn’t be read that way (e.g. Gen. 1-11). Nonetheless, lots of biblical texts are still very concerned with substantial historicity the key events. Moreover, the historicity of the events in the Bible does matter for lots of our Christian doctrines. So I don’t think we can make a binary distinction, claiming that the Bible is a purely theological but non-historical book.

We’ve got to be more refined than that, examining the texts of the Bible and the doctrines of the Church on a case-by-case basis to figure out where the points of friction are. (I recently edited a book exploring just this subject, Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism. Pete was kind enough to post an interview about it here, if you’re curious.)

From a pragmatic point of view, there’s a downside to this nuanced construal of Scripture’s historicity. A definition of Scriptural truth that safeguards all its historical and scientific contents does build a nice fence around our other doctrines. (Muslims have a similar construal of the Qur’an, and it certainly can be useful.)

But the point of my “aha” moment is that the phenomena of Scripture itself don’t seem to support that depiction of Scripture. Scripture cannot bear the weight of the historical demands that many evangelicals place on it.

That sort of realization sometimes causes people to conclude (or fear) that all our other doctrines must be rubbish. But that’s sloppy logic; just because you can’t guarantee the historicity of every genealogical detail doesn’t mean that Jesus’ body is moldering in a tomb somewhere. There’s a ton of middle ground between those extremes, and evangelical biblical scholars (as well as non-evangelical Christian biblical scholars) can and should be (and are!) involved in mapping out that middle ground.

Are there doctrines “at stake” depending on the conclusions that people draw? Sure. But I don’t think our faith is actually well served by distorting the Bible, especially insofar as I think that the Bible is revelatory and true just as it is. As a good friend of mine, David Lincicum, puts it, the job of the Christian biblical scholar is to seek the perfection Scripture has, rather than the perfection we would demand of it.

“aha” moments (19): Jared Byas
open letter to the apostle Paul from a concerned reader
another article on inerrantist biblical scholars and "protective strategies"
my 5 "best" blogs of 2014 that, as far as we know (who's to say, really?) will likely change the world
  • Eric Hatfield

    Very well argued, thanks. There is no other field of human knowledge where we demand perfection (inerrancy) in our information before we will draw a conclusion, so there seems to be no reason why we should here either.

    BTW, I have read the book he co-edited and feel it is one of the most important books I have read on this topic. Highly recommended.

    • Brian P.

      Most other fields of human knowledge we’ve put under methodological naturalism, the scientific method, and peer review and the like.

      With the splintering of the the Church into a thousand out-of-Communion threads, there is neither evidence-and-method-as-means-to-know-truth, nor revelation-and-authority-to-declare-truth.

      Chicago Statement crew is just one stream. With contemporary technologies–as evidenced by this blog–theological isolation of islands becomes less and less viable as a means to propagate certain kinds of faith to a next generation.

      Also, in other fields we don’t demand perfection because we don’t offer ultimate truths, eternal outcomes, etc. We don’t make existential promises.

    • Christopher Hays

      Hey, thanks, Eric! That’s very kind of you and massive encouragement. And your point is spot on: we can make decisions and gain real understanding even with imperfect and/or partial information. Nice observation.

  • Andrew Wilson

    Fascinating! Out of interest, did Dr Green agree with you when he published his commentary; if not, why, and if so, how did that go down at Wheaton?

    • Christopher Hays

      Gosh, I can’t recall! I am abroad right now, so I can’t check the commentary in my library. He definitely mentioned it warmly (because he is, after all, a good mentor and a kind man!), but I’m not sure if he actually agreed with me. I’ll have to check.

      As to how it was received at Wheaton, I don’t think more than one or two people read it (aside from the friends on whom I foisted it). If memory serves, Scott Hafemann mentioned it in his commentary, and didn’t seem convinced. But naturally it’s not as if, as a MA student, most people paid attention to a tiny note that I published. Perhaps that kept me out of trouble, but I’d like to think that Wheaton’s faculty would have been fine with me exploring and having my own independent thoughts, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with me. I found Wheaton to be a tremendously enlightening place, not one of intellectual repression, and I bear deep affection for it. Heck, I want my kids to go there!

      Thanks for the kind word, Andrew. :-)

      • Andrew Wilson

        Sure! You gave a great paper at KCL on the delay of the parousia a while back, and I thought it was a great example of how to do Christian scholarship which was neither unthinking nor snarky. This piece is in the same tone :)

        • Christopher Hays

          Dude, you just made my weekend. Thank you.

    • Dwight Gingrich

      I just checked Green’s commentary and, if I am reading him correctly, he does not take a clear position there on this question. He addresses the textual difficulty only in his “additional notes.” After surveying possible explanations not discussed in this blog article (such as potential parallels with the kind of Hebrew word plays practiced on Balaam’s name and his father’s name in later Jewish writings), he presents two other possibilities without clearly affirming either:
      1) A suggestion that Peter may be referring to a city called Bosor which was located in Syria; this city is never directly associated with Balaam in any other text, but the region is. “What appears to some as ‘Peter’s mistake’… could, in fact, come from someone who knew the region and the whole Balaam story quite well.”
      2) “Hays (2004), however, takes a different tack…” He then quotes and summarizes Hay’s view in about 5 sentences.

      Green does not discuss the question of the possible implications of Hays’ tack for our doctrines of Scripture.

  • scott caulley

    well said, Chris. I enjoyed your article when I first read it. Thanks for the David Lincicum quote (another outstanding young scholar). I’m happy to point out that we all have time in Tuebingen in common!

    • Christopher Hays

      Indeed, although I am sad to say that I didn’t get to drink nearly so deeply from that well as did you and Dave. Probably accounts for my decided intellectual clumsiness! Great to hear from you, Scott!

  • http://dogmatics.wordpress.com/ Kevin Davis

    This is my favorite of the “aha” testimonies. I especially appreciate Dr. Hay’s point that a non-inerrant doctrine of Scripture does not mean non-history, which would reduce our theology to inducing existential meaning but nothing more. So, yes, there are precise distinctions that have to be made.

    • Brian P.

      Yes, an emphasis on metaphysical and theological inerrency would be safer (in its unprovability either way) than an emphasis on historical and scientific inerrancy. Would be a good face-saver for many.

      • Christopher Hays

        You are definitely right, Brian; when one moves the authority issue from history to metaphysics, non-falsifiability does become a concern. I’m not sure how I’d satisfy Karl Popper in that respect. Good point.

        • Brian P.

          Your wording suggests knowing is prerequisite to satisfaction.

    • Christopher Hays

      Kevin, thank you very much. That’s tremendously kind of you. And I appreciate you pointing out that I am not trying to be reductionist or anti-historical even while pushing back at certain historical facets of the biblical text. Cheers!

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    Great insight.

  • rvs

    Thanks for the good humor and clarity. “Revelatory”–excellent word! I take you to be saying that the Bible is a mystical document of a sort, one that requires a particular type of spirited reading. I also appreciated the concluding distinction from Lincicum.

    • Christopher Hays

      Yeah, that Dave Lincicum is a seriously good egg!
      I like the language of mystical to describe the Bible (although I wouldn’t use that in a way that preclude any and all historical interest). I am keen on that term in the Eastern Orthodox sense, emphasizing the encounter with God. And of course, in good Orthodox (and Protestant and Catholic) theology, the mystical experience is only possible because God deigns to connect with his people, not because people are able to climb into experience of God by dint of their formidable research.
      I appreciate the encouragement.

  • Ron

    Thanks for addressing not only problems in the Bible, but how to approach them and remain Christian. I do think, however, that there are lots and lots of problems and at some point they just become too many. Not all of the problems are as minor as the genealogy example you give.

    • Brian P.

      Like the physical virgin birth and physical resurrection. They are historically true because the are doctrinally essential seems to be backing into it.

      • Christopher Hays

        That would indeed be backing into it. I think that people sometimes do make that sort of argument. It is of course perfectly legitimate to recognize the doctrinal gravity of an historical judgment and then to give a topic serious attention in that light. But simply to say “It must have happened because if it didn’t, then what I believe is wrong” would be seriously shoddy thought.
        Thanks, Brian!

        • Brian P.

          For those two topics for me, historicity is a “maybe, but almost certainly not.” While there’s much in postmodernity that resonates with me, I wonder how much I’ve bought into a modernistic aesthetic. To believe or try to believe or even entertain trying to believe in something that most likely didn’t happen as if it fingers-crossed really did, this just doesn’t intrinsically feel inspiring.

          Plantinga can attribute to the noetic effects of sin and my loved ones can call me demon possessed, but honestly, to believe in the unbelievable feels morally corrupt.

          I hope you can relate, at least somewhat. Conversely I hope I can understand how believing in scientific or historical inerrancy or in certain characteristics shifted to original autographs is corrupt.

    • Christopher Hays

      Well, I think that is fair. The reason the genealogy example provided my “Aha” moment is precisely because it was insignificant. If it were a big deal, either historically or theologically, it might have been too much for me to swallow at that point.
      As you say, there are lots and lots of problems, and at some point for many people they do become too many, whether to permit their continued belief in the revelatory character of Scripture or Christian doctrine or maybe even the Christian God. But I think that sometimes the faith is made unduly brittle when we foist upon Scripture demands about factuality that have more to do with modernism that our inductive reading of the text.
      Thanks for this, Ron.

      • Ron

        Thanks for your honest, thoughtful, and straight forward reply. I think, for me, the numerous contradictions in the Gospels lead me to at least wonder whether the Bible can really be historically accurate about bigger issues such as the divinity of Jesus and the Resurrection. If you can’t get the little things right (such as whether Jesus died on Thursday or Friday), then how can you get the big things right? Thanks.

        • Christopher Hays

          That is a totally legitimate concern, and an aptly stated question. I think I’d be inclined to reply that the inconsistencies at the level of (e.g.) the day on which Jesus died or who saw him first when he supposedly rose again probably don’t amount to sufficient reason to deny the total historicity of the Gospels on many key points. For example, I’m sure that we’d agree that, irrespective of which day Jesus died, he did indeed die by crucifixion. In this case, disputation about the trees doesn’t negate the existence of the forest (as it were). I’m inclined to think that a similar set of considerations is probably pertinent with respect to the resurrection (that is to say, even though the Gospels and 1 Corinthians differ on who saw Jesus rise when, they all agree on the fundamental point that they saw him rise). Naturally, I think you are right to take pause in light of the historical inconsistencies in the Gospels, but I’m not sure that those amount to a reason to deny the more central affirmations.
          These are the right sorts of questions to be asking, and I’m grateful to have people like you asking them. I think it helps me to be more careful and to reflect more deeply. So thanks!

          • Rom

            Thanks to you for your thoughtful response when many seem to get offended by what I think are reasonable questions. So, the big issues (the Crucifixion and the Resurrection) remain intact despite the Biblical discrepancies and these discrepancies are mainly about incidental details. I hope you are right and that ancient authors just did not make up a bunch of stuff. I do think in a court of law so many differences would raise substantial question about the credibility of the witnesses on the main points.

  • Daniel Fisher

    “I realized that I thought Peter had made an historical mistake, and I realized that it didn’t make me trust the message of Scripture less….I saw no reason to doubt 2 Peter’s criticism of the false teachers because of this tiny lacuna in his historical knowledge.”

    I can appreciate this…. However, I am genuinely curious if your response to trusting the rest of 2Peter’s doctrine would have been similar if you had been less sympathetic to the doctrine…. If, for instance, Peter had been defending the slaughter of the Canaanites. This is where I, at least, notice people actively on the proverbial slippery slope… “Well, Peter wasn’t absolutely right about Balaam, and I know better than he did on matters of Biblical history… So maybe I know more than him about matters of science, or sociology, or morality, etc.” Pete himself in this blog (if I read it right, please correct if I am wrong) suggested that even if some Old Testament passages claimed a certain character for God in those conquest passages, we know better than that author based on various things (including the New Testament, etc.) I’ve seen plenty of arguments recently suggesting that we know better than Paul about homosexuality because we understand more about human nature, genetics, sociology, etc., than Paul did.

    I am genuinely curious (and not being rhetorical, I really would be interested in people’s thoughts here…) Once we begin with something as relatively simple as believing that I know history better than Peter, since of my study, knowledge, etc., etc., …. What is it, exactly, that keeps us from taking the same approach to science, sociology, ethics, morality, theology, etc., etc.In other words, if I’m reading carefully, you seem to suggest that doubting his facts about history doesn’t mean we need to doubt his facts about theology. Specifically, why not? What, exactly, is it that allows us to put these two areas of knowledge in different categories – one where we can doubt the truth of what Peter said, and the other where it his words are absolutely and (dare I say) unerringly authoritative?

    • Christopher Hays

      Fantastic set of questions, Daniel. And these are the right lines of inquiry that need to be explored. It is very sensible to be concerned that we are engaging in special pleading when saying “He is right about theology but wrong about history”; similar ad hoc distinctions are made sometimes when folks say “the Bible isn’t a scientific document but it is an historical document.” But certainly it is not unreasonable to say that lack of credibility in one aspect of knowledge sometimes would call into question an individual’s credibility in another field of knowledge. Conversely, though, I think we recognize that as much is not always the case (we are perfectly happy to trust a mathematician’s calculations even if he has clumsy grammar). Thus, in our day-to-day interactions, we are engaged in a process of evaluating claims made by other people based on a variety of considerations about their trustfulness in various areas and the way in which their shortcomings in one area might or might not affect the veracity of their views in another area. So, in principle, the sort of space I see between the theological message of 2 Peter and the historical detail about Balaam is very much reflective of the way we operate all the time.

      That does not mean, however, that history is just unimportant. In many cases the historical information is not just window-dressing; it is integral to the legitimacy of the author’s argument (i.e. in the case of Paul’s comments about the resurrection hopes of Christians based on Christ’s resurrection; if Christ is not historically raised, the theological message of Paul is bunk). So the book I helped write, ‘Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism’, tries to unpack that in a more detailed fashion, showing where the historicity of events is especially important, and where it is less important to our faith.

      You also rightly point out that people sometimes do choose to reject a theological affirmation that they find unpalatable based on what they perceive to be historical or scientific blind-spot in the text. The scenario you hypothetically narrate (“Well, Peter wasn’t absolutely right about Balaam, and I know better than he did on matters of Biblical history… So maybe I know more than him about matters of science, or sociology, or morality, etc.”) does, I think, represent an unacceptable disregard of what I consider to be revelatory character of the text. But the case that I’m trying to make is rather the opposite: instead of saying “since 2 Peter is wrong about this historical detail, he is wrong about everything”, I’m saying “2 Peter doesn’t need to be considered wrong about everything just because he is wrong about the historical detail.”

      I really appreciate the interaction, Daniel. Great comments.

      • Daniel Fisher

        I appreciate the “excellent mathematician with poor grammer” metaphor, that does help me understand how you conceive of the categories…. and I appreciate from your response that it sounds like you are considering Peter (and the other biblical authors) as “outstanding theologians but poor historians” (my words). But it doesn’t quite answer my initial question…

        I do understand that you and others maintain “I don’t trust Peter (or whatever other Biblical writer) as an expert on history and science, but I do trust him as an expert on theology & morality…” What I was asking is, SPECIFICALLY, on what basis you have made that determination? Tradition? because you like/approve of the theology? Because he was taught by Jesus? Because you believe his theological writings to have been guided specifically through the Holy Spirit so as to be theologically (though not historically) inerrant?

        In other words, you refer to what you consider an “unacceptable disregard of what I consider to be revelatory character of the text..” What, SPECIFICALLY, makes it unacceptable for someone to disregard Peter’s theological or moral viewpoints, in contrast to the manner you find it acceptable to disregard his historic or scientific viewpoints?

        If I might ask an additional question for clarify – I am curious just how “authoritative” you find his theology to be? A man might be a great mathematician, but another person wise enough in mathematics might still doubt his mathematical theories or challenge him in this area. Is Peter’s theology just typically out of our league, but if I get wise enough, could I challenge him, or does his theology (though not history) rise to the level of being *absolutely* authoritative… i.e., inerrant and infallbile theologically?

        • Christopher Hays

          Thanks for pressing the point, Daniel. In brief, I’d say that the reason I’m inclined to trust the biblical authors because of the tradition of the Church that they speak for truly for God. Obviously, Christian tradition understands how they “speak truly” in a variety of different ways, many (but certainly not all!) denying the need for the texts to be historically or scientifically pristine; and I’d wager that the present participants in this blog form a small part of the continued unfolding of that tradition.

          Of course, the only reason I trust Christian tradition is because I believe that the Holy Spirit is operative in that tradition, insofar as the Spirit remains operative throughout history amidst the communities of all its people.

          So, given the role I allot to tradition and the Spirit, I guess you could say that what keeps me an orthodox protestant is the fact that I’m part Catholic and part Pentecostal!

  • LizK

    It would be great to see a woman, non-westerner, and/or a minority in this fine series :)

    • Brian P.

      ??? Isn’t the topic whiteman’s theological angsts?

      • LizK

        I was attempting to make a constructive comment, not mock the series or the participants. Let’s believe the best of Pete and the guest bloggers and respect their theological journeys too, even as we ask to hear more diverse voices.

        • Brian P.

          Fair point; I was snarky.

          Yet I recognize–if not lament in some ways–this is an Evangelical blog and even in the discussion of what are to many things that can’t be discussed in many circles of polite Evangelical company, there are still significant guardrails about respecting people’s theological journeys and diversity of voices.

          Only so much latitude can be stomached.

          When one person’s theological journey (and even liberation and that of the selflessly compassionate kind) departs from what the in-group cherishes with a white-knuckled kind of grasp, watch out.

          Anyhow, consider opportunities to emphasize not just openness of diversity to not just gender and skin color, but the scariest of them all:

          Openness to ideas.

    • peteenns

      I agree and I’m working on it.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Interesting stuff, if nerdy :-) Sounds like a lot like the way it goes most days in the lab. The general public does not really understand the patience (and stubbornness) required to investigate and untangle complex entities.

    It’s clear to some number of us that “Scripture cannot bear the weight of the historical demands that many evangelicals place on it.” Let’s say we wake up Monday to find that all evangelicals, of all definitions, agree completely that some reasonable amount of ‘historical’ stuff in Scripture is not really historical. But, when we make our respective lists (historical, possibly historical, probably not historical, not historical and it doesn’t matter) and have a big conference to compare the lists, how many new denominations will we have? Who will be considered the really biblical Christians and who will be cast out, and by whom?

    I’m not saying that this is not the right road to go down, in fact, it’s a necessary journey. It’s just that the level of extreme biblicism may not be much reduced with that single recognition. As long as we focus on Scripture exclusive of any other sources of truth, there is no end in sight. In some evangelical quarters we are beginning to say that much (not all) truth can come from sources other than Scripture, and (the tricky part) that these truths can and should be used to modify and improve our interpretation of Scripture (not change Scripture but surely change some of our interpretations, even long-held ones). This redefinition of sola scriptura must come. Hopefully we evangelicals can do it together in ways that don’t embarrass church much more than we already have done.

    This is a great series Pete!

    • Christopher Hays

      Great comment, Bev. I thoroughly share your concern about the way that the evangelical traditions are impoverished by epistemological reductionism.

      I also thought your comments about the way that a new round of debates on the historicity of various bits of the Bible would, in our current climate, be likely to generate lots of new denominations and sub-groups. It makes me appreciate the savvy of the framers of the early creeds, that focused on the broad historical contours of Jesus’ life, and then moved on to doctrinal formulations (not that the Fathers were always bastions of inclusivism)! But I do think a good dose of Christocentrism and theocentrism would be a helpful corrective to some of the interdenominational feuding.

      Thanks for engaging with my nerdy post! 😀

  • Brian P.

    Thanks for sharing this. I love reading these stories.

  • Tim

    Balaams and Balaks and Beors, Oh My!

  • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

    Chris, this is one insomniac who found your article fascinating. The Targums, however, do not confuse Belah consistently (so it is confusion at all?). After giving Balaam for the Hebrew Belah, both of them revert back to Belah in the very next verse; the same verse that ends with Batsra. It seems like all the texts you cite give really good reason for 2 Peter to have confused Balaam/Balak/Belah but not much reason to use them with Bosor (which is the harder reading). None of the texts you cite juxtapose those two together except 2 Peter. So where is the precedent for Peter’s conflation and confusion? Did I miss it?

    • Christopher Hays

      GREAT observation, Peter. You didn’t miss a thing (quite the contrary!). The way that the Targums slid between names for Bela (perhaps not a confusion but a simple variation as you suggest! Good call.) struck me as the sort of data that may help account for why 2 Peter, when thinking about Balaam, would mentally get tangled up with a king-list. But you are right that the targums do not provide a precedent for the Beor/Bosor switch.

      The way that the article’s argument functioned was by providing a whole range of evidence of analogous phenomena to the 2 Peter 2:15 variants (e.g. Julianus’ confusion of the Moabite and Edomite Balaks, the targumic interchangeability of names from the two stories, the confusion of hometowns and parent names, the juxtapositions of Beor and Bosorra, etc.). As such, it’s argumentative strategy is not to provide direct precedents for the confusion of Beor and Bosor, but to show that other people had interchanged lots of bit and bobs from the two accounts, such that it shouldn’t seem weird that 2 Peter did the same, albeit interchanging elements that other folks didn’t interchange.

      So, if I were trying to run the argument the other way around, and use the phenomena of the targums, etc., to anticipate what errors 2 Peter 2:15 would make, then this would all be very silly and supremely implausible. But naturally that is not the way the argument works. Instead, I was just trying to provide a plausible account of why 2 Peter 2:15 DID use this weird name Bosor, and this explanation struck me as a lot more plausible than the other ones I read.

      Thanks so much for the careful engagement. You are much more productive and lucid during sleepless nights than I am!

      • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

        Okay. So what is that actual account of how 2 Peter got Bosor on your reading? I get that bits and bobs can get confused (Sinaiticus with its reading of Beōorsor is a case in point), but *how* did Bosor get confused for Beor is the question? I see lots of ways that Balaam could become Balak, but not how Beor could become Bosor. All the texts you cite connect Balaam/Balak/Belah explicitly with Beor don’t they? So Peter doesn’t make the “same mistake” as you say above does he?

      • Daniel Fisher

        I have to agree with Peter G. here – I’m not seeing the specific evidence that Peter got “caught up in the flow and reproduce[d] the **same** mistake” if there’s no evidence of this mistake having been previously made? Additionally, someone else who knows better than I might speak to this – but LXX in both genealogies seems to use the more full “Βοσορρας/Bosorras”, so even if the confusion was from the genealogy in the LXX, this amateur might expect to see Βοσορρας instead of Βοσορ if the confusion came from the genealogy in the LXX?

  • James

    C.S. Lewis reluctantly became a Christian theist as a reasoned response to evidence. The gospel record of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection rang true to him. That didn’t make Lewis an inerrantist, just a “mere Christian.” I think when we start with Christ at the center of faith, it is not so hard (eventually) to view Genesis 1-11 as largely mythical, a different kind of history than we may be used to. Nor will we jump on an alleged inaccuracy in the epistles or even variations in the gospel accounts. “These (scriptures) are they that testify of me” sounds good enough for us; we have encountered Christ.

  • noel

    I have always had a problem with the Book of Job. My wife in reading her Bible study notes says it commented that some scholars do not believe it is historical. What are you thoughts and what is the significance if some NT writer mentions it.

    • Brian P.

      Just saw nobody responded to this. Here’s the short: Nobody interested in history in and of itself thinks the book of Job historical. All inerrantist apologists think its historical, of course.

      Significance that the NT writers mention it? They thought it was important.

      In short, whatever answers you want, authorities can be found to support.

      Discuss with your wife only with great trepidation. My experience suggests time is better spent on the honey-do list.

  • Jim Byrne

    I’d love to hear the stories of some women in biblical scholarship too.

    • peteenns

      I agree and am working on it.

  • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

    Christopher Hays, have you come across Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy? In it, he talks about how people think and remember when writing is scarce, as well as when writing hasn’t even been invented yet. One of the results is that one can actually give some “structure” to what errors are more likely than others—including errors like the one you mention in 2 Peter.

    You may also enjoy looking at forward error correction, for a rigorous treatment of when redundancy prevents any meaningful data loss. It seems to me that this is at most what God is obligated to do for us: allow us to reconstruct what is true when we need to know it. And really, he doesn’t even need to do that, given his Holy Spirit. Anyhow, if one works with God’s telos—e.g. all nations coming to know him better and better (Jn 17:3)—then one can considerably weaken various claims about how he would do this, recognizing that many different material, efficient, and formal causes can be used to achieve a given final cause.

  • Milan Norgauer

    Inerrancy is and will continue to be the test of faith for this and future generations. God is saying to all: do you believe my Word, or have you chosen to believe what the unbelievers and skeptics say? When I was in college in the 1980’s, it was the unbelieving scholars who denied Genesis 1-11 and who rejected the Bible’s teaching on sexuality. Now it is the professing “Christians.” Who knew? God has spoken, as has Jesus. Adam and Eve were people. Believe God or not; your soul’s eternity depends on it.


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