Many thanks to Christian at Wipf and Stock for this review copy.
This book is a sustained assault upon the notion of biblical inerrancy popular amongst English-speaking Evangelicals, and expounded in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (which dates back to 1978 but which was adopted in 2006 by the Evangelical Theological Society… creating awkwardness for more than one member therein!). In doing this, Stark builds a convincing case, even though he doesn’t necessarily break any new scholarly ground (as John Collins notes in the forward).
After an opening chapter examining some prominent differences amongst some of the biblical texts, Stark spends two chapters exploring the position of those who adhere to biblical inerrancy, while highlighting some of the problems related to this belief. In the next few chapters, he explores five examples of themes or texts or contradictions between texts that create insoluble problems for the inerrantist position. In order, Stark examines the biblical shift from polytheism to monotheism, the matter of human sacrifice as practiced by Yahwists, the problem of divinely sanctioned genocides, contradictions about who actually killed Goliath, and then the supposed problem of Jesus and Paul being wrong about the timing of end of the world. All of these cases are already well known to scholars but Stark explores them clearly and makes a convincing case (except in the last example regarding Jesus and Paul, but I’ll get to that in a moment). In the next chapter, he explores the positions taken by some who reject inerrancy but who do not, in his opinion, confront the full brutality or reality of the problematical texts. Thus, he examines and rejects both Brevard Childs’ “canonical” reading of the Bible, as well as more “subversive” or counter-imperial readings. Finally, in the last chapter, Stark proposes his own way forward. Rather than accepting or finding ways of avoiding a full confrontation with “texts of terror” and other problems within the Bible, Stark proposes that these texts “must be retained as scripture, precisely as condemned texts. Their status as condemned is precisely their scriptural value. That they are condemned is what they reveal to us about God” (p218; emph. removed).
All things considered, this is a very good book and one that I would recommend to those who value the Bible but who have wrestled with it and find themselves dissatisfied with the proposed solutions that they have encountered thus far. However, I want to raise three points of criticism.
First of all, Stark’s understanding of our contemporary context needs to be sharpened. On multiple occasions, his deployment of current or recent points of comparison is sloppy or problematical. For example, on multiple occasions he compares the texts about the conquest of Canaan to the American history of conquest over the First Nations peoples. Unfortunately, he always refers to that American genocide as though it were a distant past event (cf. p123). This is simply not the case and the popular State- and Corporate-sponsored oppression, exploitation and genocide of First Nations peoples continues up until this present moment. In this regard, Stark is still too deeply rooted in the dominant script of America.
Another example of Stark’s rootedness within that script, comes through in his comments about current American wars, which he refers to as “ambiguous” (p222). A few pages later, it’s as though Stark forgets that America is even at war. When he speaks about the apocalyptic dualism between good and evil, he suggests that this dualism may be appropriate in wartime when “it is often necessary to draw up sharp dividing lines between sides in the conflict” but now things are no longer so black and white (p226; cf. 225-226). What Stark neglects here is that America is at war, not to mention the ongoing global class war of the wealthy against the poor that has been steadily increasing over the last several decades. Of course, lacking a strong understanding of our current situation isn’t a weakness unique to Stark. One often sees this amongst scholarly-types who are trying to be relevant but who aren’t sufficiently rooted amongst the marginalized and so end up making inadequate or misleading remarks despite their best efforts.
Secondly, I want to mention Stark’s criticisms of “canonical” and “subversive” readings of the Bible. It seems to me that Stark (a) doesn’t sufficiently engage the possibilities inherent to some of those readings; and (b) does not recognize the extent to which he himself relies upon, and employs, both of these ways of reading.
Beginning with Childs, Stark describes his canonical reading in this way:
If the texts are going to continue to be useful, they will be useful not as objects of historical curiosity but as dynamic scriptures which are the rightful property of the community of faith… with the intention of providing the community of faith the inspiration it needs to be faithful in a trying world. As a result, readings that challenge the truthfulness of this or that text… render the texts useless for their intended purposes” (p211).
Stark then identifies three problems with this: (1) the final form of the text was not chosen by the community of faith but by the theopolitical elites; (2) diverse voices are lost and problematical texts are buried; and (3) no clear determining factor exists as to who determines the what “canonical reading” actually is (p211-212). This is fair enough, but it seems to me that Stark only engages in a slightly tweaked variation of this reading, and a tweaking that is susceptible to that same criticisms. Thus, in treating some scriptures as “condemned texts,” he asserts that what readings are appropriate will vary from context to context and that “each confessing community must decide for itself how to make these and other texts useful for its own purposes” (p219). Later, he again affirms that “the proper place for critical appropriations of scripture is within the believing community” (p235). To me, this sounds a lot like a canonical reading and one that is still exercised without clear determining factors as to what might make this reading valid. I’m not sure if Stark goes beyond “burying” problematical texts. Rather, instead of burying them, he rejects them, but his criteria for doing so seem just as arbitrary as Childs’. That is to say, while Childs (as a representative of a believing community) may be less committed to the truthfulness of a text and, by that means, escape a harsh confrontation with some texts in order to affirm a God committed to life, Stark (as a representative of a believing community?) confronts the same text in order to own it by condemning it, thereby ending up in the same position.
In fact, for all its stronger commitment to historical criticism, Stark’s proposed reading ends up sharing a great deal in common with the inerrantists with whom he is arguing: both permit prior commitments to dominate their readings of the Bible. Just as historical criticism cannot be used as the basis for belief in biblical inerrancy, so also historical criticism cannot provide Stark with the criteria needed to determine if this or that text is condemnable. As much as Stark rightly criticizes inerrantists who propose “plain” readings over “literal” readings (i.e. who permit an ideological overcoding to provide a previously determined meaning for any given text), we see the same ideologically-motivated methodology at work when Stark describes the “condemned texts” in this way:
Through these texts the voice of God speaks to us today, calling us to reject self-serving ontologies of difference, to abandon any allegiances to tribes or nation-states that take precedence over our allegiance to humanity itself and to the world we all inhabit (p120).
Of course, the condemned texts literally say nothing like this. So, while I find Stark’s approach to have a better ethical value than the approach taken by the inerrantists, their hermeneutics may be more similar than both parties care to admit.
On a slightly different note, I’m curious to know how Stark’s reading is one that is really produced by a “believing community.” It seems to me that his reading is produced by one person struggling to make sense of scripture (one person, it should be noted, who also is rooted more amongst the elite than the oppressed). I don’t know how it is the result of a “confessing community” struggling to make sense of the Bible. I’ve heard from others that Stark operates in isolation from faith communities so I don’t know if he follows the methodology he prescribes. After all, Stark concludes with some pretty individualistic and personal words: “I am proposing [this reading] because to me it represents the most honest struggle–it is the only way that I know how to navigate our moral universe” (p241, emphasis added; no real sign of any “believing community” here). I wanted to ask Stark about this but he has refused to engage with me after our last exchange. I invited him to be interviewed about this book but he declined and told me that we are no longer “friends” (a statement I found odd, since I’ve only interacted with him online but perhaps he puts a different stock into online engagements, given that his website proclaims how many people “like” him on facebook, whereas I don’t even have a facebook account…).
Turning to “subversive” readings, one should note that much of what Stark actually does throughout his book is standard “subversive” or counter-imperial readings of the Bible — he appears excited enough about this sort of reading that he is willing to insert it into his argument at times when it feels awkward or diverges from his broader points (cf. pp201-202). However, Stark draws on the scholarship of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and agrees with her assertion that “subversive” readings do not go far enough because they neglect the ongoing impact of imperial language and imagery as those things have shaped the readings, social imaginaries, and actions of Christians up until our present day (cf. pp213-216). On the one hand, this point is fair enough. When biblical scholars feel compelled to speak outside of their area of expertise (say the Pauline epistles, or whatever) what they have to say tends to be disappointingly shallow or dull (here one could refer to most “application” sections found in New Testament commentaries). On the other hand, however, I do not think that the “subversive” or counter-imperial approach is to blame for this error. Rather, it seems to me that a thoroughly counter-imperial reading is one that takes into consideration the impacts of imperialism not only upon the texts as they were produced, but also upon the formation of the canon (something Stark highlights very well) and upon our present moment (something Stark highlights less well… actually, on this point he doesn’t follow his own advice, as I mentioned earlier). Thankfully, there are a number of scholars who are engaging in precisely this sort of more fully-informed “subversive” reading (cf., for example, Jennings, Myers, Howard-Brook, Gwyther, Walsh, Keesmaat, and even Schüssler Fiorenza herself, just to name a few NT voices… or those like Brueggemann or Trible who engage the OT in a fuller manner).
Finally, my third and final criticism: Stark’s talk about apocalyptic beliefs and what he takes to be the expectation of the imminent end of the world affirmed by Jesus and Paul. All my previous criticisms have not been directed at Stark’s primary work in this text: exegesis. In fact, his exegesis is very strong throughout… except on this point. My first quibble is that Stark makes contradictory statements about the nature of Second Temple Jewish apocalypticism and never resolves them. Thus, on the one hand he approvingly quotes Dale Allison, who asserts that the apocalyptic perspective is marked by “a passive political stance” (p165) and goes on the assert that Paul espoused “a strategy of political quietism” because he believed the end of the world was imminent (p202). Consequently, he concludes that the apocalyptic perspective leaves “no room for any form of engagement… At most political responsibility is narrated in sectarian terms. To be politically responsible is to be sectarian” (pp226-27; emphasis removed).
On the other hand, however, Stark asserts that the apocalyptic system contained beliefs that were “politically explosive” and “freed one up to walk a dangerous path of hard-line opposition to Rome and to the puppet temple regime in Jerusalem” (p167). Further, he argues that Jesus’ (supposed) belief in the imminent end of the world functioned as a “pertinent sociopolitical/economic critique” and “was a complex beautiful, and incisively accurate expression of outrage at the existing world order, and a clarion call for fidelity to a new social system based upon justice rather than exploitation… it was the cry of the revolutionary spirit” (p229).
Thus, Stark concludes that the “revolutionary impulse was right… but the waiting for a miracle to make it happen–that was wrong” (p230). Thus, he rejects what he takes to be an apocalyptic “ethics of waiting” that removes us from the present pursuit of justice and “renders world history a cosmic joke” (p228; cf. pp227-28).
A few things merit comment here. First of all, Stark’s remarks do not make sense of the actual activities of Jesus and Paul. Jesus and Paul did not exhibit any sort of political quietism. There were actively involved in working towards the goals of the just reign of God in the here-and-now of their moments in history. There was no passivity, no sitting back and waiting involved. That is why they were both condemned as impious terrorists and executed by the political authorities. Stark’s whole line of criticism falls apart when his picture of apocalypticism is compared to the textual witness to the lived lives of Jesus and Paul. Secondly, Stark never adequately resolves the tension he sees between passive sectarianism and revolutionary action that I just mentioned. Here, it seems to me that he has referred to some of the dominant scholarly voices who have studied apocalyptic literature, and he has pulled out key quotations, but he doesn’t seem to have delved fully into the discussion, Here, one notices the range of perspectives found within Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic traditions. Some voices are more passive and quietist, others are more active and revolutionary. Some are more reformist, others are more radical. Some are more rooted at the margins. Others are more rooted at centres of power. Given that, it is worth asking where Jesus and Paul fall within that spectrum. This would help Stark to not make contradictory statements.
My second quibble with Stark’s reading of apocalypticism is his acceptance of the thesis that both Jesus and Paul believed in the imminent end of the world (cf., for example, pp160-61 on Jesus and pp125, 199-201 on Paul). He doesn’t really argue the case for this but simply accepts the work of other scholars (in his assertions about Paul, he only mentions two texts, J. Christiaan Beker’s Paul the Apostle and J. Paul Sampley’s Walking Between the Times). Again, I think Stark would have benefited from engaging the scholarly literature more fully. Certainly this thesis has had strong supporters since Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer blew the lid off of it over one hundred years ago, and I recognize that it was the dominant scholarly position twenty years ago. However, a lot of strong work has challenged this view in recent decades and has pointed out the importance of distinguishing (in Paul’s case, for example) the difference between certain expectation and uncertain hope and longing. I see good reason to believe that Paul longed for Christ to return during Paul’s lifetime, but I remain unconvinced that Paul was certain of this. Thus, as Oscar Cullmann noted half a century ago, if Paul was proposing an “interim ethics,” that interim extends until today. Again, when we look at the actual activities undertaken by Jesus and Paul, that ethics is not problematical because it does not espouse passivity or quietism or telling those who are suffering to “wait it out” (cf. p227). Thus, while Stark’s penchant for hyperbole leads him frequently assert that his conclusions are “unequivocal” (cf. p173) there is certainly a lot of equivocation amongst scholars on this point. Consequently, I am bound to reject his conclusion that his “review makes it clear that an expectation of an imminent end is a consistent feature of canonical strands of Christian expectation” (p204).
My third quibble is with Stark’s final outright rejection of the apocalyptic perspective for contemporary Christians due to what he perceives as its “intractable problems” (p225; cf. pp225-30). I’ve already mentioned some reasons why this perspective might be misplaced and one also thinks of the writings of Nate Kerr and Douglas Campbell (as well as the Pauline reflections inspired by Alain Badiou) as a sufficient refutation of this suggestion. However, one further point is worth highlighting. One of Stark’s problems with the apocalyptic outlook is that he thinks it relies upon waiting for a miracle, a happy ending brought to us by some deus ex machina (cf. pp228, 230). Bluntly stated, Stark seems to have a problem with God intervening in history (one of his objections to the doctrine of inerrancy is that it “denies the human authors of scripture [their] free will” [p63]). Yet, it seems to me that the Bible is full of deus ex machina moments. The whole notion of Jesus coming as a (divine) Messiah is one of those moments. Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road is another. Hell, creation is this sort of apocalyptic Event. It’s hard to reject a longing for the parousia of Christ for this reason, while holding on to much of anything else in the Bible. Furthermore, unlike Stark, I do think we are very much stuck waiting for the miracle for which he says we do not need to wait. I’ve been involved in the struggle for justice and abundant life for all (and not just for some) for more than ten years now and, despite all our best efforts, I know we are absolutely fucked if God does not come and intervene. To say that we need no miracle seems to go back to where Stark is rooted. Getting closer to the margins may change his mind about that.
In conclusion, I should reiterate that this book is very successful in completing what it sets out to do: making the Evangelical belief in biblical inerrancy unsustainable. It is recommended reading for all those who are concerned about that debate or who don’t know quite what to make of their scriptures.