Monday, 7 May 2007

The Philosopher vs. the Biblical Fundamentalist

I realise that this post is a radical departure from the usual content of this blog, but I thought it would be fun to mix things up a little. Here, I will be presenting an argument against certain types of Biblical Fundamentalism—namely, those which hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible. The argument presented here was originally featured on one of my weblogs as a parody. But after receiving several email correspondences from Biblical Fundamentalists attempting to refute my argument (quite unsuccessfully in my opinion), I am beginning to suspect that I may actually be on to something. My argument, simply stated, is that if Biblical literalism is true (a claim many Biblical Fundamentalist subscribe to) then Biblical Fundamentalism must be false.

Let us define Biblical literalism as the claim that the Bible should be interpreted at face value, unless otherwise clearly indicated. On this view, the creation of the world by God, the parting of the red sea by Moses, the resurrection of Jesus Chirst, and the prophesied return of Jesus to earth and final judgement are to be interpreted as actual historical events. The final clause of my definition of Biblical literalism—i.e., “unless otherwise clearly indicated”—acknowledges that there are parts of scripture, such as the parables or the visions described in the book of Revelation, that are meant to be interpreted symbolically.

The definition of Biblical literalism presented here is not arbitrary. There are many Biblical Fundamentalists who subscribe to Biblical literalism as here adumbrated. Let Biblical fundamentalism be minimally taken to entail BF:
BF: Jesus Christ was sent by God.
In the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, chapter 28, a general principle, known as the 'prophetic test' is articulated. According to the prophetic test, a prophet “will be recognized as one truly sent by the LORD only if his prediction comes true ”(verse 9). Stated in the contrapositive, the prophetic test may be put as follows:
PT: If a prophet makes a prediction that does not come true, then that prophet is not sent by God.
It may be protested that PT is actually the contrapositive of Jeremiah 28:9. However, the contrapositive of a material conditional is classically considered its equivalent. (This point was first brought to my attention by Shawn. See comments) Either way, we may find a statement of the prophetic test in the contrapositive form in Deuteronomy 18:22:
Deuteronomy 18:22 (NIV)
Verse 22: If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.
Hence, we may conclude that PT has the endorsement of the Bible. So far, so good.

In Matthew 16:27,28 Jesus predicts that (1) his second coming and (2) the final judgement would take place within the lifetime of some of the people in his audience.
Matthew 16:27, 28 (NIV)
Verse 27: For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.
Verse 28: I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
However, all the individuals in Jesus' audience are dead (and have been for some time now) and, neither (1) the second coming nor (2) the final judgement has taken place. Therefore:
(*) Jesus' prediction did not come true.
Given PT and (*), we must conclude that:
C: Jesus was not sent by God.
Therefore, Biblical Fundamentalism is false.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

It just so happens my husband and I discussed this very issue a couple of nights ago.

It is believed (by us and others) that He was speaking of the Pentecost, at which time believers received the Holy Spirit. And by the concept of the Trinity, He did come again, and to this day we all embody the "body of Christ." Other scholars believe He was referring to the subsequent fall of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Jesus often did the unexpected. He wasn't a military leader that the Jews wanted the Messiah to be. And He didn't come back the way they expected either.

I don't expect the above argument to make a dent in your steadfastness against God. But I felt compelled to share that.

AVERY ARCHER said...

Dear Anonymous,
Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

You suggest that Jesus is actually referring to Pentecost (i.e., the coming of the Holy Spirit immediately following his ascension) or perhaps to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Neither of these proposals stand up to textual (or theological) evidence. Firstly, the appellation ‘Son of Man’ is never applied to the Holy Spirit. In fact, it could only refer to Jesus Christ since he is the only member of the Godhead that was born of a woman via the incarnation. Secondly, verse 27 says the Son of Man would “come in his Father’s glory with his angels”. There was no “Father’s glory” or “angels” at Pentecost (nor at the fall of Jerusalem) and there was no rewarding of “each person according to what he had done” (which strikes me as an obvious reference to final judgement).

CK said...

Another interpretation is that this refers to Jesus in his glory at the Transfiguration. (I don't endorse this view, but it's out there, too.)

They argue that verse 28 (seeing the Son of God in his glory) doesn't equal verse 27 (the establishment of the kingdom).

Interestingly, too, there are some Christians who would agree with your argument, to an extent...except they'd say that Jesus DID establish his kingdom. They're called preterists.

All this is just to say that using the Bible to refute fundamentalists is difficult, because they can always find some way to /interpret/ the passage that is conducive to their position.

(If they can fit Genesis with what they see around them, and chapters 1 and 2 together...then you know you'll never convince them of anything!)

Anonymous said...

Friend, when reading the bible, we must remember that it was not written in the western culture. Matthew had a very oriental logic to him, where time is more like a measuring rod or just another dimension like length or width. That being said, the disciples who would not "taste death" before seeing the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom were Peter, James, and John. Look at the very next verse in chapter 17. You'll notice it is the transfiguration account, where Jesus is in his glory. Right here Peter, James, and John see the Son of Man in his Kingdom and Glory. And furthermore John saw the Jesus in His Kingdom yet again in the Revelation. Friend we must remember that God's logic is not our logic. He does not look at time the way we do, God does not think chronologically the way the western culture does. Everything about the Second Coming of Christ is as one event to the Lord. For example the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. which Christ prophesied to "this generation" in Matthew, his transfiguration, and his literal establishment of His Kingdom on earth are all one event in the Lord's mind. Remember, he knew those who were in Christ in the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world.

AVERY ARCHER said...

CK,
I was actually anticipating the transfiguration objection, which I will respond to in my reply to Anonymous below. (There is also a third strategy that claims the passage in question refers to the resurrection, so I'm waiting for someone to bring that up as well.) However, I agree with you that my argument does not apply to Bible-believing Christians tout court. Rather, I take as my target those who subscribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible (i.e., Futurist). According to the Biblical literalist, Preterists are guilty of rampant spiritualisation and fall under Apostle Paul's condemnation of the doctrine of Hymaneus and Philetus in 2 Timothy 2:17-18. Incidentally, I think I may actually agree with the Biblical literalist on this score.

AVERY ARCHER said...

Dear Anonymous,
Your suggestion that Jesus is here referring to his transfiguration does not strike me as plausible. I agree with you that Jesus appears in his Father’s glory both at his transfiguration and the second coming. But that does not mean the two events are the same. At the transfiguration, Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah. At the second coming, Jesus appears with all his angels. At the transfiguration, Jesus appears to only three disciples. At the second coming, Jesus appears to everyone and judges them for their sins. These are clearly two different events. Now the question is, which of these two events is Jesus talking about in Matthew 16? Since verse 28 talks about the “Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (italics mine), it seems clear to me that he is talking about the second coming, and not the transfiguration.

Moreover, Matthew 16:27,28 is an examplar of a common literary device employed in the Gospels known as parallelism. Notice how the description in Matthew 16 is almost identical to that in Matthew 25:

Matthew 16:27,28(NAB)
Verse 27: For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father's glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct.
Verse 28: Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

Matthew 25:31,32(NAB)
Verse 31: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne,
Verse 32: and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Matthew 25 is widely regarded as the paradigm description of the second coming of Jesus and final judgement. Now, given the way the common New Testament literary device of parallelism works, if Matthew 25 is referring to the second coming, shouldn't the parallel passage in Matthew 16 be referring to the second coming also? To suggest otherwise seems, at best, ad hoc, and at worst, duplicitous.

Finally, you say that “God does not think chronologically the way the western culture does.” Forgive me if I find that assertion more than a little presumptuous. Who are you to say how God thinks?

Even so, let us grant that God does not personally subscribe to “western chronology” or “human logic”. Notice that in my argument I appeal to a criterion suggested by the Bible itself. 1 John 4:1 commands us to test prophets before accepting that they are sent by God. Jeremiah 28 and Deuteronomy 18 give us the criterion by which we should conduct such a test. Assuming ought implies can (God would not command us to do something he knew we were incapable of doing), then this suggests that we should be able to determine whether or not a prophecy came true.

Now, if on any given occasion in which I attempt to apply the prophetic test someone were to protest that I cannot do so because God operates by a different chronology or logic, then this begs the question: why give us a prophet test at all? Why command us to implement a procedure that he (i.e., God) knows our “faulty human logic” would not allow us to effectively carry out?

CK said...

Sorry to have assumed you didn't know about preterism! Obviously you've got a background in NT studies, of some sort. I'm just never sure how much philosophers refuting Christian tenets know about Christian hermeneutics and history.

I'm willing to bet this will be your most popular thread, with more people leaving irrational statements like "Matthew had a very oriental logic [which is...?] to him, where time is more like a measuring rod or just another dimension like length or width" and "God's logic is not our logic. He does not look at time the way we do, God does not think chronologically the way the western culture does [because a measuring rod doesn't imply chronological?]." Yep, those go together quite well...

Anyway, good luck replying to your future visitors. And by the way, I enjoy your posts on McDowell, even if I lurk more often than comment.

[CZ] Sangoma said...

The Empire never ended.

Any time I think about Jesus' prediction that he would return in the lifetime of his disciples, I always think about PKD. In his VALIS series, Phil wrote that time was an illusion (or rather a "perfect spurious interpolation aping the creation of the Mind") and that it stopped in 70 AD with the destruction of the Temple, and didn't start again until the Gnostic Gospels were discovered in 1945.

Which is about as good a way around it as any.

AVERY ARCHER said...

CK,
I think your assumption was justified since I suspect that most philosophers are quite nescient regarding the finer points of Christian theology in general, and Biblical literalism in particular. I'll like to think I'm an exception on this score, but then again maybe not. Either way, it is fun to apply the type of rigorous analysis that typically characterises philosophical ratiocination to subject matter that falls outside the traditional concerns of academic philosophy. I think it bespeaks the power of precision-oriented critical thinking. (I'm also hoping that if I'm mistaken on this particular question someone can set me right.)

AVERY ARCHER said...

[cz]sangoma,
Since, ex hypothesi, a Biblical Fundamentalist would not regard Philip K. Dick as a religious authority I assume your point is not intended as a defence of Biblical Fundamentalism. Even so, it is not clear to me how “time stopping” in 70 AD is a “way around” the problem as I've presented it. The problem is that all of Christ's disciples are now dead and Jesus has not (1) returned to earth nor has (2) the final judgement taken place. This problem would be solved if “time stopping” were the same as (1) and (2). But we have no reason to suppose this is so.

[CZ] Sangoma said...

You may be assured that I was not advancing PKD's idea as a serious or credible-to-a-fundamentalist explanation.

However, to clarify the "way around it" -- If it is REALLY only about 130AD (103AD when the first book in the series was published) and the sermon took place no earlier than 30AD, it is possible, although increasingly unlikely, that some of Jesus' original disciples are still alive, and there's still some time on the clock for His return, so (*) is not (yet) true.

In fact, if I recall correctly, the 2 protagonists of his Radio Free Albemuth were disciples of Jesus -- whether or not they were present or even alive at this particular sermon is never mentioned, since Dick didn't propose this theory specifically to address this problem, it was just something he noticed as a consequence of his ideas about Empire, power, the Mind, reality...

It should probably be noted that the failure of the world to end poses some problems with Daniel's prophecies regarding the Messiah and the "70 Weeks" of Daniel chapter 9 as well.

Thomas said...

Dear Avery,

I think you have a basic misunderstanding of what Biblical Literalism means, although you should be applauded for at least attempting to avoid the very trap of hyperliteralism you stepped into.

The first sentence of your second paragraph is where your problems begin. By stating "unless otherwise clearly indicated", you close the door to simple critical reading of the text. As a result, passages that make use of idioms or colorful poetic phrasing are misinterpreted - such as Psalms 22:27 mentioning the "ends of the Earth" as proof that the Hebrews thought of the Earth as being flat.

Which then brings us to the problem of translation issues. The translation of Matthew 16:27-28 one such contention.

Is this referencing Jesus' triumphal return, or the glory of His Resurrection? Given Matthew 16:25 reference to not tasting death, and other scriptural references such as John 5:24, 6:47-50, 8:51-52, 12:25, Luke 17:33... I could go on --- one could make the exegesical claim that Jesus wasn't refering to a physical death at all, but that the eternal life promised to all who have trust in Him and follow His commands accordingly starts right then.

You presume that Jesus is talking about the Second Coming and Final Judgment, when that is but one possible exegesis among many. While Biblical Fundamentalists might lean heavily on this interpretation, it is by no means universally accepted by all fundamentalists who nonetheless subscribe to the inerrantist doctrine. And this doesn't even go into the eschatology of partial preterism.

Tom Bryant
Clemson University
Religious Studies

Shawn said...

I have a minor question about the structure of the argument. Why do you state the prophetic test, as found in Jeremiah, and then follow up with the contrapositive version as found in Deut? Is it to eliminate the bit about recognition in the Jeremiah version? Material conditionals are classically equivalent to their contrapositives. You seem to only need the contrapositive of the conditional, which is entailed by the conditional even in some non-classical systems, for the modus tollens at the end. You don't seem to need the second quote or an equivalence at all, so you might be able to streamline the argument a little.

AVERY ARCHER said...

Thomas,
First, I should point out that my definition of “Biblical Literalism” is ex hypothesi (hence the reason I prefaced it with: “let us define...”). To my knowledge, there is no universally accepted definition of Biblical Literalism; it is a term of art and must be operationalised.

Second, I would have considered poetic language, such as you find in the Psalms, to fall under the umbrella of “clearly indicated”. Poetry, after all, typically uses metaphor and symbolism of various kinds. The same applies to a passage in which Jesus says he's the bread of life. Presumably, no one thinks he is claiming to be made of wheat. But I would gladly concede that my definition of Biblical Literalism is vague in this regard. Nevertheless, I believe it is precise enough for the use to which I put it since the passages I quoted are nothing like the poetic prose featured in the passages you cited.

Moving on to the important stuff. That Jesus is here talking about the second coming is not simply something I presume, it is also something I am willing to argue for (see my comments and replies above). Now, it is not enough to simply point out that other interpretations are possible. If you're going to resist my conclusion, you'll need to show that one of those possible interpretations is (at the very minimum) more likely than my own.

Thankfully, you at least have the beginnings of such an argument here, even if it isn't as robust as I would have hoped. (I'll take what I can get.) You ask: “Is this referencing Jesus' triumphal return, or the glory of His Resurrection?” My answer: he is talking about his triumphal return, and I've already told you why I think so. The passage says as much, is reasonably clear and free of superfluous metaphor or imagery, and is almost identical to Matt 25:31, 32 which is unanimously regarded as talking about the second coming. Now, you suggest that in verse 28 Jesus is not talking about literal death. That interpretation does not seem plausible to me, and here's why: in verse 28 Jesus is trying to impress upon his hearers the urgency of the events described in verse 27. Given this goal, it makes sense to point out that the events will take place within the lifetime of those present. But it would undermine the entire rhetorical purpose of verse 28 to interpret Jesus' claim that some of his hearers would still be alive figuratively. In brief, your proposed interpretation does not seem to jive with the context or rhetorical goals of the passage.

AVERY ARCHER said...

Shawn,
Actually, the only reason I bothered to introduce Deuteronomy 18 was to pre-empt the objection that PT was actually the contrapositive of Jeremiah 28:9. In short, I was attempting to give the opposition the benefit of the doubt. However, as you point out, my overcompensating attempt to be explicit on this score was unwarranted. I agree with you completely that this argument could be more stream-lined than it currently is.

Enigman said...

I know nearly nothing about this, so I wonder if we know that his mum, Mary, wasn't in the audience? (I gather that she avoided death by flying up to heaven.)

AVERY ARCHER said...

We have no reason to assume that Mary was present at the time. There are numerous occasions in which Mary is explicitly mentioned as being part of Jesus' audience, such as at his first miracle, during a his temple reading (see: Matthew 13:54–56), and of course at his crucifixion. Given the potential theological significance of her being in the audience and representing the fulfilment of Christ's prophecy, it would be quite odd for her not to be mentioned if she were in fact there. Even so, I don't think the fact that she is not mentioned establishes conclusively that she was not present. Thus, I believe agnosticism would be the most reasonable position on this question.

But let us for the sake of argument assume that she was in Jesus' audience. Even so, Christ's words would still constitute a failed prophecy by the lights of the Biblical literalist. First, the teaching of the assumption of Mary into heaven, to which you refer, is never advocated by the Bible. Rather, it is a dogma arising out of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition, and therefore falls outside the magisteria of Biblical literalism. I here assume that Biblical literalists hold the Bible as the sole religious authority (sola scriptura and all that good stuff). In brief, Catholic tradition doesn't count. Moreover, the orthodox position of both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches is that Mary died before her assumption (which actually makes it an instance of bodily resurrection). In fact, her death is celebrated every August by the various Orthodox churches in the Feast of the Dormition. Thus, even if Mary were in Jesus audience she could not embody the fulfilment of his prophecy since she did taste death.

Finally, Mary is only one person. Jesus said “some” in his audience, not someone.

Matt said...

Avery,

Great post. I myself am one who grew up in a fundamentilist setting and have since left the faith. And this passage was one that caused me to question the likelihood of Jesus' messiahship and/or divinity. Nonetheless, while still remaining outside the faith (lacking belief in Jesus' messiahship and/or divinity...etc), I am not sure that this passage supports your thesis. And whether it does or not will depend on whether my interpretation fits within the scope of "Biblical Literalism." Whether it does so fit, or not, I will leave to you and the readers, and in what follows I will simply provide what I think is the best interpretation of this passage. So while my post may not directly decide one way or the other on your thesis, I do think it will enrich the discussion.

My interpretation hinges on three claims. First, this passage is Matthew's redactional work on the Markan original (Mark 13) (original simply in the sense that it predates Matthew's redactional work, not in the sense that it is THE original). Second, in the Markan context, it is clear that the coming of the Son of Man is Jesus' use of first century metaphor for YHWH's reversal of worldly fortune within history at the national level (paraphrased from G.B. Caird, "New Testament Theology" pg. 254") wherein the true people of God are vindicated and God's enemies are punished (paraphrased from N.T. Wright "Jesus and the Victory of God" pg.362) that takes the form of the destruction of the temple, not a literal return. And three, the best interpretation of the Matthean passage treats Matthew as adopting the Markan meaning (from which the passage is redacted). Out of these three, I think the most unlikely (although still more likely than not) is the third of these claims.

Concerning the first claim, space does not permit an argument, but I do think that it should be noted that Markan priority is the majority position of New Testament scholars, and that it is widely accepted that this passage is a Mathean redaction of the Markan original.

Concerning the second claim, the passage as it is found in Mark is a clear use of the Son of Man phrase as found in Daniel. In the book of Daniel, the Son of Man is a mythic figure who represents YHWH and the nation of Israel. In other words, it is a symbol of the God of Israel and his nation. Without delving too far into the exegesis of Daniel, the Son of Man (in Daniel) experiences suffering, but in the end he is vindicated and his enemies (beasts who represent foreign nations) are punished and destroyed. Thus, in the Markan passage (Mark 13:26), when Jesus speaks of the coming of the Son of Man, he is referring to the vindication of his people (in this context, Jesus’ disciples and first century Christians), and the punishment and destroying of his enemies (in this context, first century Jews who do not accept his message). Both the vindication and the punishment/destroying, in the Markan context, take the form of the destruction of the temple (as supported by verse 2 “not one stone will here be left upon another”). Thus it is not a literal second coming that is here described, but Jesus’ use of first century Jewish metaphor to describe the reversal of worldly fortune within history at the national level wherein the true people of God (and Jesus himself) are vindicated and God’s enemies are punished—and that this takes the form of the destruction of the temple (and the nation of Israel). In other words, the coming of the Son of Man that Jesus describes is the (literal?) coming of God in history, but that this (literal?) coming of God takes the form of the destruction of the temple.

Well-known New Testament scholars who take this position include G.B Caird (now deceased oxford professor quoted above), N.T. Wright (formerly a professor at Oxford, also quoted above), and R.T. France (see his commentary on Mark, also a professor at Oxford). Each of these interpreters think that the literal interpretation made by many today would be strangely unfamiliar to first century Jews familiar with its metaphorical use found in Daniel.

Important to note is that one can be a literalist and hold that Jesus is using Jewish metaphor and/or symbolic language when context permits/suggests, which I think it does in this case. Indeed, N.T. Wright and R.T. France might be one who fits both of your categories (biblical literalist and biblical fundamentalist) (Both are evangelical Anglicans).

I’m not too sure how clear I have been on this second claim. It is a difficult passage and a somewhat nuanced interpretation. I suspect those with a background in biblical studies likely will better understand than those without such a background. At any rate, sorry for my lack of clarity.

Now concerning the third claim. I must admit, the Mathean version is very difficult to interpret. It seems as though Matthew takes the passage out of it’s Markan context (where it is clear that Jesus is discussing the destruction of the temple and the fall of the nation of Israel) and places it in another. Still, it appears the Markan interpretation should still be preferred. In the Matthean context, Jesus is rebuking Peter for not accepting the fact that Jesus must go to Jerusalem and suffer (vss. 21-23). Jesus uses the coming of the Son of Man to reassure Peter that God’s people will be vindicated and God’s enemies will be destroyed, and that this will occur within the lifetime of those currently present. What remains unclear is just what form this is going to take…is it the destruction of the temple, like the Markan passage describes? Or does it take another form for Matthew, like a literal return? The reason I retain the Markan meaning is because I do not see anything in the Matthean context that supports something other than the Markan meaning. But, as stated earlier, Matthew does not provide a context for the Markan meaning either. Nonetheless, I still think it best to see Matthew as adopting Mark’s meaning.

Some important notes before I close.

(1) The interpretation of this passage has had a long and healthy debate beginning in the late 18th century with Samuel Reimarus’ pioneering work on the historical Jesus. In fact, Reimarus made the very argument that you (Avery) have made in this post.

(2) Contemporary biblical scholars have by no means reached any sort of consensus on this passage.

(3) And there are “liberal” scholars who do not think that Jesus is here describing his second coming.

I leave you all to ponder my interpretation (as taken from other biblical scholars) and whether one who holds my position can be both a “biblical literalist” and a “biblical fundamentalist.”

And for a better written and more thorough explanation of my position, see the works of Caird, Wright, and France.

Anonymous said...

Surely Jesus was familiar with the logicians plural? Or is this just another example of imposing "Western Logic" on the Bible?

Bull said...

In my Mormon upbringing this is explained by the "fact" that the beloved apostle (John) never tasted death. So, your assertion that all present are dead is false because John never died and is apparently still walking the earth.

Matt said...

Avery,

Great post. I myself am one who grew up in a fundamentalist setting and have since left the faith. And this passage was one that caused me to question the likelihood of Jesus' messiahship and/or divinity. Nonetheless, while still remaining outside the faith (lacking belief in Jesus' messiahship and/or divinity...etc), I am not sure that this passage supports your thesis. And whether it does or not will depend on whether my interpretation fits within the scope of "Biblical Literalism." Whether it does so fit, or not, I will leave to you and the readers, and in what follows I will simply provide what I think is the best interpretation of this passage. So while my post may not directly decide one way or the other on your thesis, I do think it will enrich the discussion.

My interpretation hinges on three claims. First, this passage is Matthew's redactional work on the Markan original (Mark 13) (original simply in the sense that it predates Matthew's redactional work, not in the sense that it is THE original). Second, in the Markan context, it is clear that the coming of the Son of Man is Jesus' use of first century metaphor for YHWH's reversal of worldly fortune within history at the national level (paraphrased from G.B. Caird, "New Testament Theology" pg. 254") wherein the true people of God are vindicated and God's enemies are punished (paraphrased from N.T. Wright "Jesus and the Victory of God" pg.362) that takes the form of the destruction of the temple, not a literal return. And three, the best interpretation of the Matthean passage treats Matthew as adopting the Markan meaning (from which the passage is redacted). Out of these three, I think the most unlikely (although still more likely than not) is the third of these claims.

Concerning the first claim, space does not permit an argument, but I do think that it should be noted that Markan priority is the majority position for New Testament scholars, and that it is widely accepted that this passage is a Mathean redaction of the Markan original.

Concerning the second claim, the passage as it is found in Mark is a clear use of the Son of Man phrase as found in Daniel. In the book of Daniel, the Son of Man is a mythic figure who represents YHWH and the nation of Israel. In other words, it is a symbol of the God of Israel and his nation. Without delving too far into the exegesis of Daniel, the Son of Man (in Daniel) experiences suffering, but in the end he is vindicated and his enemies (beasts who represent foreign nations) are punished and destroyed. Thus, in the Markan passage (Mark 13:26), when Jesus speaks of the coming of the Son of Man, he is taking on this symbol to describe the vindication of his people (in this context, Jesus’ disciples and first century Christians), and the punishment and destroying of his enemies (in this context, first century Jews who do not accept his message). Both the vindication and the punishment/destroying, in the Markan context, takes the form of the destruction of the temple (as supported by verse 2 “not one stone will here be left upon another”). Accordingly, it is not a bodily second coming that is here described, but Jesus’ use of first century Jewish metaphor to describe the reversal of worldly fortune within history at the national level wherein the true people of God (and Jesus himself) are vindicated and God’s enemies are punished—and that this takes the form of the destruction of the temple (and the nation of Israel). In other words, the coming of the Son of Man that Jesus describes is the (literal?) coming of God in history, but that this (literal?) coming of God takes the form of the destruction of the temple.

Well-known New Testament scholars who take this position include G.B Caird (now deceased oxford professor quoted above), N.T. Wright (formerly a professor at Oxford, also quoted above), and R.T. France (see his commentary on Mark, also a professor at Oxford). Each of these interpreters think that the literal interpretation made by many today would be strangely unfamiliar to first century Jews familiar with its metaphorical/symbolic use found in Daniel.

Important to note is that one can be a literalist and hold that Jesus is using Jewish metaphor and/or symbolic language when context permits/suggests, which I think it does in this case. Indeed, N.T. Wright and R.T. France might be one who fits both of your categories (biblical literalist and biblical fundamentalist) (Both are evangelical Anglicans).

I’m not too sure how clear I have been on this second claim. It is a difficult passage and a somewhat nuanced interpretation. I suspect those with a background in biblical studies likely will better understand than those without such a background. At any rate, sorry for my lack of clarity.

Now concerning the third claim. I must admit, the Mathean version is very difficult to interpret. It seems as though Matthew takes the passage out of it’s Markan context (where it is clear that Jesus is discussing the destruction of the temple and the fall of the nation of Israel) and places it in another. Still, it appears the Markan interpretation should still be preferred. In the Matthean context, Jesus is rebuking Peter for not accepting the fact that Jesus must go to Jerusalem and suffer (vss. 21-23). Jesus uses the coming of the Son of Man to reassure Peter that God’s people will be vindicated and God’s enemies will be destroyed, and that this will occur within the lifetime of those currently present. What remains unclear is just what form this is going to take…is it the destruction of the temple, like the Markan passage describes? Or does it take another form for Matthew, like a literal return? The reason I retain the Markan meaning is because I do not see anything in the Matthean context that suggests something other than the Markan meaning. But, as stated earlier, Matthew does not provide a context for the Markan meaning either. Nonetheless, I still think it best to see Matthew as adopting the original, Markan meaning.

Some important notes before I close.

(1) The interpretation of this passage has had a long and healthy debate beginning in the late 18th century with Samuel Reimarus’ pioneering work on the historical Jesus. In fact, Reimarus made the very argument that you (Avery) have made in this post.

(2) Contemporary biblical scholars have by no means reached any sort of consensus on this passage.

(3) And there are “liberal” scholars who do not think that Jesus is here describing his second coming.

I leave you all to ponder my interpretation (as taken from other biblical scholars) and whether one who holds my position can be both a “biblical literalist” and a “biblical fundamentalist.”

And for a better written and more thorough explanation of my position, see the works of Caird, Wright, and France.

AVERY ARCHER said...

Bull,
I agree with you that the Mormon interpretation almost reads like a parody. The main scriptural basis for the Mormon position is John 21:21,22, where Jesus invites Peter to follow him into martyrdom. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid the question, Peter directs attention towards John:

Verse 21: When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?"
Verse 22: Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me."

Thus, Jesus is taken as suggesting that John would remain alive on earth until Jesus's second coming. However, what I find curious is that the very next verse seems to debunk this interpretation:

Verse 23: Because of this, the rumour spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?"

But in Joseph Smith's defence, he claims to have been actually visited by the immortal St. John himself...which is more than the rest of us could say.

AVERY ARCHER said...

Matt,
I do appreciate your taking the time to research this issue. However, the position you have articulated here would not fall under the umbrella of Biblical Literalism (as defined in my post). Here's the first hint that your position is not a literalist one: “First, this passage is Matthew's redactional work on the Markan original.” “Redactional” is not part of the Biblical literalist vocabulary. By literalist's lights, the synoptic gospels are independently and contemporaneously inspired texts. Any similarities within the texts is due to the fact that they are reporting the same historical events and such similarities only represent further evidence of their historicity.

Recall, I define Biblical literalism as taking the Bible at face value, which excludes most historical-critical readings. After all, if you're willing to call into question when the various texts were written, why, and by whom, then eo ipso you're not taking the Bible at face value. Since some folks still seem unclear about whether or not their position is a literalist one here are few hints:

If you think the first five books of the bible were not written by Moses and that Wellhausen was unto something, you're not a Biblical literalist.

If you think the other synoptic gospels are based on Mark and a document called Q, you're not a Biblical literalist.

If you think the “Son of Man coming in clouds” (Mark 15:26) refers to a geo-political reversal in the development of the nation of Israel, you're not a Biblical literalist.

Now, as it so happens, I do think there are minor difficulites in your proposed account, even from a historical-critical perspective. But that is all besides the point vis-a-vis the present discussion. Biblical literalism, ex hypothesi, stands in contrast to historical-critical (and even grammatico-historical) interpretations of the Bible. My definition is admittedly quite narrow. However, there is a substantive portion of the US population that subscribes to it and so it nevertheless embodies a well-represented position.

(Incidentally, I think my argument applies with equal force to those who hold to a grammatico-historical approach, but that's not a position I've explicitly defended here.)

Jay Carlson said...

Avery,
Just to clarify, given your last comment: is there a distinction between (1.) taking the Bible literally and (2) interpreting the events in the Bible as actual historical events? There would seem to me to be a difference between taking the text as a literal description and interpreting the events that happen as historical, that is, literally true, but I'm not sure if this is what is in your mind as well.

Jay

John said...

Dear Avery,

I came upon this post via fides quarens intellectum. What a fine thinker you are. I have two comments.

Most interpreters of an authoritative text, the Bible, the Constitution, the rules of the highway, whatever, are not, thank goodness, consistent strict constructionists (terms like fundamentalist and literalist are pretty loaded; you might want to find terms with an application beyond the hermeneutics of a single text, no matter how iconic in our culture). Unfortunately, my local policeman is, which is why I got a $217.00 ticket for rolling through a stop sign the other day.

In any case, strict constructionism is not practiced very often in the biblical tradition. This explains why the fact that the expectation of Jesus and his first disciples that God would bring about the restitutio of the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6) in their lifetimes, when it did not occur, was not a deal-breaker, despite the offense to the Deuteronomic rule you cite.

Let me illustrate from the Hebrew Bible. In Ezek 29:17-21, the selfsame prophet alludes to a failed prophecy of his (Ezek 26), and proceeds to make a new, compensatory prophecy. It also never came to pass. Does that mean that Ezekiel is not among the prophets? Well, he is, and that's because it was understood that prophecy is first of all about what should happen, not necessarily what will happen. Examples like the one I give abound. For an excellent discussion, see Lena Sofia-Tiemeyer, "Prophecy as a Way of Cancelling Prophecy - The Strategic Uses of Foreknowledge," ZAW 117 (2005), pp. 329-50.

TMI, I imagine, but perhaps you will now understand better why a interpreter like me, whose principle is: as literal as possible and as free as necessary, is not troubled by your line of argument.

JohnFH
www.ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com

AVERY ARCHER said...

Jay
Prima facie, your distinction seems salient, but I'm not sure what it ultimately amounts to. Take Mark 13 for example:

Verse 26: And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.

Now let's attempt to apply your distinction. It seems clear that (1), taking the Bible literally, entails interpreting this passage as actually talking about about the Son of man coming in the clouds (as opposed to reading it as a metaphor or code of some kind). But what does (2) amount to? Is it still a further question whether or not the “coming in the clouds” is to be understood as a historical event?

I suspect that you, and others, are making my argument much more complicated than it needs to be. I define a Biblical literalist simply as someone who takes the Bible at face value—i.e., as meaning just what it says. According to the Biblical literalist, when Mark 13:26 talks about “Son of man coming in the clouds” it means Son of man coming in the clouds. Now I realise that for some purposes my definition may be too vague. However, it seems more than adequate to deal with the passages cited in my argument.

Now the point I have been attempting to drive home in my replies to the various comments above is that it is inconsistent to interpret passages like Mark 13:26 as talking about the second coming (as many do) and deny that Matthew 16:27,28 should also be so interpreted. My contention is that anyone who does this is being, at best, inconsistent, and at worst, duplicitous.

Jay Carlson said...

Avery,

The reason I bring up this distinction is b/c in the original definition you gave you said:"On this view,
the creation...parting of the red sea, resurrection..are to be interpreted as actual historical events." This statement is ambiguous because now you're not discussing the texts but whatever it is they refer to, if anything. I would assume you mean: on this view, the stories of creation, miracles, and resurrection, are to be interpreted as literal descriptions, versus metaphoric/allegoric descriptions Is this accurate for your definition?

The importance of making clarification is that a rejection regarding these events (creation, miracles, resurrection) as historical events is a much broader belief hardly exclusive to those of the Biblical literalist camp.

AVERY ARCHER said...

John,
Thanks for sharing your perspective. I do not think your view falls under the umbrella of Biblical literalism as I've defined it (please folks, if the cap doesn't fit, don't feel compelled to wear it). Nevertheless, I still think your position is worth engaging on its own terms. I've therefore decided to respond to you (along with the quasi-historical-critical reading suggested by Matt) in a separate post.

In the mean time, I invite readers to check out John's reply to my post over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry.

AVERY ARCHER said...

Jay,
I think I finally get the point you were making and your clarification of my definition of Biblical literalism is dead on:

on this view, the stories of creation, miracles, and resurrection, are to be interpreted as literal descriptions, versus metaphoric/allegoric descriptions.

This is precisely what I meant. Moreover, I believe the challenge posed by my argument does extend to other approaches (such as grammatico-historical accounts) that I do not take to be literalist. However, despite its possible wider applications, my argument specifically targets Biblical literalism in the narrow sense you adumbrated.