The Bible: Morally Bankrupt or Totally Reliable

Chicago — The taxi driver who dropped me off at McCormick Place, the convention center where the annual joint conference of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature is being held, asked if it was a meeting of religious people—like nuns and priests.

There are nuns and priests in attendance, for sure, along with Baptists, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, but it’s a gathering of religious scholars, not a revival meeting, and plenty of the people here don’t subscribe to any faith tradition; they just spend their lives studying them.

Naturally, there is a lot of talk about the Bible. Here is a sampling of the Bible-related presentation titles:

  • “You Shall Not Boil a Kid in Its Mother’s Milk: The Dietary Law That Wasn’t”
  • “The Divine Unsub: Television Procedurals and Biblical Sexual Violence”
  • “‘Dude Looks Like a Lady’: Queering Wisdom in Proverbs 1-9″
  • “Adam as Alpha Male: Genesis 1-3, Christian Domestic Discipline, and the Erotics of Wife Spanking”
  • “When Supervillains Cite Scripture”

I’m obviously cherry-picking the flashy ones. Not everybody quotes Aerosmith.

Because there is a commingling of acolytes and infidels, researchers here examine the Bible from wildly different standpoints. For instance, during a discussion of slavery in Paul’s epistles, Hector Avalos, a professor of religious studies at Iowa State University, argued that “the Bible cannot be used as a moral authority” because, as Sam Harris once wrote, it got the easiest moral question humanity has ever faced wrong.

Avalos contended that because Paul, in his letter to Philemon, doesn’t make a case against slavery, he is condoning it (though, to Paul’s credit, he does write that slaves should be treated respectfully). When someone suggested that parts of the Bible could be seen as offering moral guidance, while other parts should be dismissed as flawed, Avalos nixed that notion. “That would be unethical,” he said. It’s either a reliable source in toto or it isn’t. Avalos is an atheist who blogs at Debunking Christianity, so it’s clear whose side he is on.

I heard another scholar reject an originalist approach to Scripture. “The Bible is much more important for what it has done than for what it meant in the first century,” he said. Another researcher explained how, in her view, 19th-century Christian apologists “impeded intellectual progress” in the United States. Still another scholar said: “The central message of the Synoptic Gospels is not true.”

But if you attended a session of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, you heard a much more positive take on the Good Book. You learned, for instance, that the veracity of the Easter story is confirmed by external sources. You learned that the Book of Acts is 100 percent historically accurate. And you further learned that critics who would dispute such truths are misinformed or simply ignoring the facts.

Among the speakers was Craig A. Evans, a professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College and, as his Web site points out, a “scholar with a very impressive list of publications.” In his talk, titled “The New Testament Manuscripts: Old and Reliable,” he argued that, while we no longer have the original manuscripts of the New Testament, those manuscripts were probably still in circulation when the copies that exist today were made. He also took great pains to assert that, compared with other ancient texts, the New Testament manuscripts are considerably more trustworthy and that we have older, better copies of them.

On this particular evening, Evans didn’t delve into the critique, made popular by Bart D. Ehrman, the author of Misquoting Jesus, that those manuscripts differ in hundreds, or even thousands, of ways, making it tricky to claim that anyone can ever really know what was in that original account (not to mention that the authors were writing decades after the events they describe). But the two have debated before, and Evans always makes a spirited case—in part thanks to his compelling rhetorical style. As the moderator of the session said, “Your kids must love it when you read bedtime stories.”

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