Your interview with Frank Cross (“Frank Moore Cross—An Interview,” BR 08:04) is archival material at its best.
Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center
BR Picks at the Word Like Vultures on Carrion
Please cancel my subscription to Bible Review. I have received four copies to date and have been deeply troubled in my spirit by their contents.
I am appalled by your writers’ attack on what I believe is the divinely inspired Word of God! They pick apart the Word like vultures on carrion, making it an ugly mass of dry bones. Your magazine’s approach is intellectual, but the Word calls us to come as little children (Matthew 18:2–4). Your approach takes away our ability to trust God to reveal the truth of His Word (1 John 5:19–20).
Please refund my subscription as it grieves my spirit to have contributed to the heresies contained in your magazine. May God forgive you for the confusion you cause (2 Peter 2)!
Borg Misses the Context
I enjoy differing, challenging ideas regarding the Scriptures, but it was too much for me when Marcus J. Borg (“Different Ways of Looking at the Bible,” BR 08:04) wrote that the earthen vessels mentioned by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7 refer to the Bible.
A person with even an elementary understanding of context knows that Paul is referring to mortal human beings with weakness and pain and infirmity as “the earthen vessels.”
Borg not only violates the context in trying to justify his very questionable view of Scripture, but he attempts to make a singular out of a plural.
It would be interesting to know his definition of a “committed Christian,” which he says he is.
Sorry. With such columnists as Borg, there are theological journals other than BR that can challenge me and that at the same time have a high view of Scripture.
The Milwaukee Protestant Home
Marcus Borg replies:
Mr. Heyne is correct: Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:7 do not refer to the Bible. I did not mean to imply that they did, though I see that my words could be understood that way. Rather, my intention was to use Paul’s words to express my view of Scripture: for me, Scripture is an earthen vessel containing great treasure.
Fundamentalists and Academics Are Flip Sides of Same Coin
Marcus Borg (“Different Ways of Looking at the Bible,” BR 08:04) actually presents not two views, but one view, of Scripture. In this one view, the individual of conscience “looks at” the Bible, stands in judgment over it, and decides what “it” is and how to view it. The Bible is thus an object thrown before one’s scrutiny, the subject of one’s own analysis, a thing apart both from the individual and, what is more serious, from a living, historical community of faith to which one is accountable.
The fundamentalist “Bible believer” and the academic “Bible scholar” are really flip sides of an essentially Western coin: both want to analyze and judge an “it,” to stand above text and outside community; and both then want to use their results for personal and professional ends. Perhaps there is some value in this approach.
There is a more excellent way, however, the way of the Spirit speaking within the context of a living, historical community of faith that has shaped and been shaped by the biblical word. Here the individual is free from the need to judge, free from self, free to be a part 052and not apart, free to hear the Word of the Lord and live.
U.S.S. Belleau Wood
Marcus Borg replies:
I agree completely with Mr. Sims’ conclusion: The Bible’s primary religious role as a mediator of the Spirit occurs most fully in the context of a living community of faith. My concern in the column (and in much of my work) is to undermine the intellectual obstacles (such as the claim that Scripture is inerrant) that often get in the way of people being able to hear the Word in the life-giving way that Sims describes.
If the Bible Is a Human Composition, Why Is It Different from Shakespeare?
My thanks to Marcus Borg for his column, “Different Ways of Looking at the Bible,” BR 08:04. I greatly appreciate his dealing with such a basic issue, and his sharing something of his own story.
I would love to know what views Professor Borg holds on the concept of divine revelation. Since, in Borg’s view, the Bible is a human composition, is it any different from Shakespeare as a source of divine guidance? In what ways does the Bible point to God or describe a spiritual life?
I do not ask these questions in a confrontational sense. I just want to understand a Christianity that seems quite different from mine. I don’t see as sharp an either/or—either “God’s story” or “human composition”—as Professor Borg presented.
In my view, God let people write and edit the Bible out of their experience and culture, in ways that would be well suited to the people of their times. Yet God guided the process so that what emerged carries a deeper, spiritual meaning in every detail. The earthen vessels really have a treasure within them (2 Corinthians 4:7).
The New Church
Marcus Borg replies:
Reverend Smith thoughtfully raises an important question. I see the Bible differing from Shakespeare primarily in its subject matter and in its relationship to a community. The Bible’s subject matter is most centrally God, as experienced and thought about in the life of ancient Israel and the early Christian movement. It has continued to function in both Jewish and Christian religious communities as a mediator of the Spirit, as a “lens” (or icon, in the Orthodox Christian sense of the word) enabling glimpses of God. Thus I see the difference between the Bible and Shakespeare not as a difference in how they were composed (as if one were guided by God and the other not), but in the Bible’s role as mediator of the sacred to a community. It does indeed point to God and describe the life of relationship with God.
Paine Did Not “Repent”
Elizabeth Howerton (Readers Reply, BR 08:04) forgot to tell us where Benjamin Hart, in Faith and Freedom—The Christian Roots of American Freedom, got the alleged quotation of Thomas Paine repudiating his book, The Age of Reason, at the end of his life.
Since Benjamin Hart writes on behalf of the Christian Right and his book was published by a firm that issues only fundamentalist books, we can safely assume that this deathbed confession has no more basis in fact than the often-printed but completely fictitious deathbed confession of Charles Darwin, another bogeyman of the fundamentalists.
The alleged quotation also implies that Paine was an atheist, another common misrepresentation of him by fundamentalists. Anyone who has read his works knows that he was not an atheist but a Deist, that is, someone who believes in a creator God.
A Deist to the End
In “Did Paine Repent?” (Readers Reply, BR 08:04), Elizabeth Howerton relays the myth that Thomas Paine—one of America’s many non-Christian Founding Fathers—rejected his Age of Reason on his deathbed. Stories abound that relate the alleged deathbed recantations of Bertrand Russell, Darwin, Huxley, Ingersoll, and—for all I know—me. So too with Thomas Paine. But the facts, of course, are quite different.
Despite the immense service he had rendered to his adoptive country, Paine’s last years were lived in miserable poverty and bad health. As he lay dying in his room in a boarding house on Fulton Street in New York City, two clergymen intruded, seeking to obtain his deathbed confession. After being questioned concerning his final opinions in the matter of religion, Paine replied: “Let me alone. Good morning.”
Not only did Paine not repent of his Age of Reason when he lay dying, he actually wrote and prepared for publication most of the first two parts of that work when he thought he was about to die—first at the hands of the Jacobins during the Reign of Terror, and then again during what appeared to be a mortal illness he had acquired during his imprisonment in Paris.
After being nursed back to health in the home of James Monroe (later to be President of the United States), Paine’s views on Christianity became even more radical. In material intended to be Part Three of The Age of Reason, Paine even stated the thesis that Jesus “did not exist even as a man—that he is merely an imaginary or allegorical character, as Apollo, Hercules, Jupiter and all the deities of antiquity were.” Paine remained a deist to the end.
American Atheists, Ohio Division
Believers in Inerrancy Are Idolaters
Elizabeth Howerton of Seabrook, Maryland (Readers Reply, BR 08:04), writes that Thomas Paine, author of the anti-Biblical work, The Age of Reason, repented at the end of his life. According to a biographical introduction in my copy of Paine’s book, two clergymen did attempt to get Paine to repent before his death. He simply told them, “Let me alone. Good morning.”
It is true that Paine suffered great persecution because he could not accept the literal truth of the Bible. Fortunately, there is another alternative. Marcus Borg’s helpful column in the same issue suggests that “living within the story” is an alternative to believing literally in the Bible.
The Bible is a document of faith, a narrative of the journey our religious forebears made in their attempt to understand their relationship to life and to God. It is not a perfect book or a modern book. To try to turn it into a scientific textbook is to trivialize it. To call it the inerrant “Word of God” is to suggest God condones the often wicked and immoral stories found between its covers. Those who claim to see “inerrancy” in the Bible are really claiming infallibility for themselves—which is an act of idolatry.
Unitarian Universalist Church
Thanks for the fine article on “Epispasm—Circumcision in Reverse,” BR 08:04, by Robert G. Hall. My kudos to you and the author for the courage it took to write and publish it.
Methodist Theological School
Professor Helmut Koester’s column, “Luke’s Holy Land and Jesus’ Company,” BR 08:03, contains a rather misleading statement: “If Luke reflects any prejudice, it is against people who are wealthy and comfortable.” Far more obvious, however, is Luke’s (not Jesus’!) frequent anti-Jewish prejudice.
This prejudice has been documented recently by, among others, Samuel Sandmel, Anti-Semitism in the New Testament? (1978); Norman A. Beck, Mature Christianity: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic of the New Testament (1985); and, most comprehensively, Jack T. Sanders, The Jews in Luke-Acts (1987).
Professor Koester speaks of churches reading from the Gospel of Luke this summer and fall. In the light of the firm stand taken by the main Christian denominations against anti-Semitism, one hopes that these churches will not present Luke’s distortions or exaggerations without some cautionary comments from the pulpit.
The Differences Between Patriarchy and Misogyny
I would like to thank Ronald S. Hendel for his thoughtful review of my book, In the Wake of the Goddesses 054(Bible Books, BR 08:03). Naturally, I prefer his words of praise to the one paragraph of criticism, but I would like to reply to this paragraph because he touches upon several issues that should be addressed by anyone interested in the Bible.
To go first to the easiest matter: Hendel suggests that “It may not be the marriage of Adam and Eve that provides the most revealing comparison to Gilgamesh’s bond with Enkidu, but David’s relationship with Jonathan,” and that therefore “the heroic ideal of male bonding is no different in biblical literature, it seems, than in Mesopotamian.” This is undoubtedly true. Nevertheless, the closest parallel to the creation of Enkidu is the creation of Eve. David was not created for Jonathan, nor Jonathan for David. The middle section of the Gilgamesh epic is a buddy-adventure tale, a story of the adventures of a great hero and his friend. The tales of David and Jonathan are of a similar nature, as are many stories written today. But the Gilgamesh Epic is not only the story of a great hero-king of Sumer; it is also a complex tale of Everyman. The creation of Enkidu, the acculturation of Enkidu, the death of Enkidu and the transformation of Gilgamesh all provide insights into Babylonian ideas about humankind, life and death. In ancient Israel, the David and Jonathan stories bear no such weight: Israel’s narrative theology/anthropology is in the primal history; the choice of Eve as companion for Adam is meant to reflect on the nature of the human pair-bond.
As is becoming increasingly clear, Bible literature is complex, and part of its complexity is its gaps and ambiguities. An ancient midrash says that the original Torah was written in black fire upon white fire: the spaces around the words also have power and significance; what is not told can speak to us.
The Bible is not a modern book: it cannot be a modern model for progressive nonsexist thinking. We must acknowledge the undeniable patriarchy of all ancient societies—including ancient Israel. This acknowledgment is both a scholarly awareness and a profound theological statement, for it recognizes that the Bible is flawed.
Nevertheless, patriarchy is not always misogyny. The stories of the Bible do not portray women as evil, weak or stupid, even though later religious traditions often interpreted the Bible in such a manner. The Texts of Terror that Phyllis Trible has collected (Fortress, 1984) are 056not “misogynist stories.” They portray the horrible things that happen to women under patriarchy. The biblical text never approves of the events that it relates. Indeed, it could well be argued that these stories are in the Bible to show how things went wrong in Israel.
The Bible is written as the sky is falling, in the shadow of the disastrous conquests by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The stories of what David Noel Freedman calls the “Primary History” maintain their faith in the ultimate justice of God and the cosmos by blaming Israel for its own destruction. This is not misogynist story-telling!
Biblical patriarchy, like biblical slavery and biblical xenophobia, are not models for constructing today’s societies. At the same time, the Bible is not the source of these ills, and often rose above them in its vision of a responsible humanity. It does not portray strangers (even enemies) or women or slaves as subhuman or evil, but presents them essentially as full human beings in the image of God. It is the transcendent vision that should inspire us today, not the flawed social order of an ancient society.
Director of Biblical Studies
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
In the August BR you published an ad for Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Barbara Thiering.
I ran out and bought a copy of this book to see if by any chance this author had achieved the impossible through her perusal of the newly released scrolls.
I wasted my $25! I have never read a more perverse use of human imagination in a religious endeavor. Barbara Thiering must be a schizophrenic to have come up with so much very detailed imaginary garbage concerning Jesus and his background.
Please caution readers not to invest in this book.
September/October 1992 issueof our sister publication, Biblical Archaeology Review, we wrote, “The real mystery is how HarperSanFrancisco [the publisher] … decided to publish this volume. The answer doubtless has something to do with what was on the tables that Jesus overturned.”—Ed.
Your interview with Frank Cross (“Frank Moore Cross—An Interview,” BR 08:04) is archival material at its best.