Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Richard Swinburne: "The Violence of the Old Testament"

Richard Swinburne

I recently watched an interesting video -- made available by an Australian institute called the Centre for Public Christianity -- presenting a talk by the Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne as he explicates a Christian view on "The Violence of the Old Testament" (hat tip Paul Raymont).

I thought that this video might be interesting for readers here at Gypsy Scholar since my blog has often delved into the contemporary problem posed by Islamist violence in Islam. Christianity itself has at times had similar problems with violence, as perhaps every religion has, and Christian scripture itself even contains a number of problematic passages that present violence as having been condoned by God and men, so understanding how the Church Fathers dealt with such violent passages, in arguing for inclusion of the Old Testament as a Christian document, might be useful in considering the problem of violence in Islam.

Anyway, here's an edited transcript that I've copied down to record most of Swinburne's remarks in this video, "The Violence of the Old Testament":
[T]he first thing to understand about the Old Testament is why we've got it, and the objection that it depicts a vindictive God is one which was well known to Christians before they took the Old Testament as a Christian document. And there was a priest called Marcion at the end of the second century in Rome who said the Old Testament isn't a Christian document at all. We should not use it as that purpose. We ought to have just the New Testament, or just certain parts of the New Testament. So, there was a battle about whether the Old Testament should be included. In the end, it was those who wanted it included who won.

But what is interesting is the reason why, or the conditions under which, they got it accepted. And the leader of the party who wanted it accepted was Irenaeus, and he said that we must understand this document not just as a -- or [not] always as a -- historical document, but as [a document] having deep metaphorical meaning. And it was with that understanding that the Old Testament was adopted as a Christian document. And what that means is that quite a lot of the parts which seem to suppose that God is vindictive in some way have to be understood rather differently as making a quite different metaphorical claim.

The example I always use is Psalm 137, verse 9, where the psalmist pronounces a blessing on those who take the children of the people of Babylon and smash their heads against the rock. And Babylon, as I'm sure my hearers know, is where the people of Israel, or the leaders of the people of Israel, were exiled to in the 6th century [BC]. And many of the Christian theologians, the Fathers, said that we can't possibly take this literally because this is not a Christian sentiment. And so, how are we to understand it?

Well, they had a big program of how you understand the Old Testament. For example, talk about Babylon was talk of [metaphor]. Babylon was [understood as] a bad place, and so it was talk about wickedness and the powers of wickedness. The rock stands for Christ. Christ said that he would build his church on the rock, and he who builds on the rock will be saved. So, we are to understand this as telling us that the people who take the children of Babylon -- and the children of Babylon were meant to be the desires in us which come from wickedness -- and smash them against a rock, the rock of Christ, are indeed blessed. So, it's nothing to do with -- they were saying, the Fathers who interpreted this were saying -- it's nothing to do at all with literal Babylon. It's telling us to smash our bad desires against the rock of Christ, which is of course a truly Christian sentiment. And a number of the Fathers gave -- indeed, the most influential ones -- gave this interpretation.

Now, from our point of view, this sounds crazy. It's not what it meant, that [is,] it's not what the people who first wrote it meant. Well, maybe, maybe not. But what we have to realize is that the meaning of a text changes according to the context in which you put it. That is to say, the Old Testament was formed in a way that, first, there were little bits, say Psalm, or some of Psalm 137, and then these were put together into larger bits, perhaps a chunk of the Psalms, and then this was put into a larger bit still, and then into yet larger bits. And when you use a bit of the text that's been written by one person, and you compile a different book which uses that text, you don't mean the same as the person who first wrote it. You mean what it means in the larger context.

And so, this verse -- and this applied generally -- has to be understood in the larger context. And the larger context for the Christian is the whole Bible itself, including the New Testament teaching. So, it has to be understood in the light of the New Testament teaching. It may not have been what the first author meant by it, but it's what quite a number of the different authors in the subsequent development of the work meant by it. And therefore, that is what it must [mean], what a Christian must understand [by] that, and it was with that sort of way of understanding [Old Testament] scripture that scripture became a Christian document.
This allegorical method is of obvious use for transforming a horrific sentiment into its opposite. The verse apparently doesn't mean that one should kill Babylonian children but that one should 'kill' the desire to do anything evil . . . such as an evil desire to kill Babylonian children. I wonder what Swinburne does with the doctrine of eternal damnation in Hell. More to the point that I'd like to make today, however, I wonder how Swinburne would reinterpret biblical passages on "holy war," such as the following:
Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy (charam) all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:3)
This apparently genocidal verse purports to be a direct command from God (cf. 1 Samuel 15:2), so it poses a sharper hermeneutic difficulty. Fortunately, it's not a general teaching about how to conduct warfare. It applied to a specific attack and what the Israelites were supposed to do in that particular case, but it's nevertheless a pretty horrific command and doesn't appear to reflect well on the character of God. I'd therefore like to see how Swinburne handles it. I have some notion of how he'd go about reinterpreting it, of course, but I'd still like to see him do it.

Clearly of crucial importance for Swinburne's approach to hermeneutics is what happens to constitute the relevant context. Swinburne points to the New Testament, and in a later part of the same video, he specifies the especially pacific teachings of the New Testament's Sermon on the Mount.

Given that Swinburne is a philosopher, I'd guess that he also would appeal to the larger context of a philosophical understanding of God's character as omnibenevolent and the benevolent consequences that follow from such an understanding.

Islam might also benefit from applying contextual hermeneutics to violence in the Qur'an, but my impression is that such an interpretive approach will prove more difficult since Islam does have a doctrine of warfare and since Muhammad himself served as a military leader and stands as a moral exemplar for Muslims. Moreover, Islamic theology seems quite different from Christian theology. For Islam, God often appears to be understood as pure will unrestricted by anything, thereby leaving a philosophical appeal to Allah's character unmoored.

But I'm no expert on that . . .

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At 4:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This silly sort of allegorical interpretation was only invented to sneak the Old Testament into Christianity which inititally lacked it, for Marcionism WAS the original form of Christianity.

So why did any Christians want to sneak the Old Testament in? Because Christianity was being made fun of for being totally new. (This is clear, for example, in Justin Martyr's apologies.) The Pagans were saying "Zeus has been around forever, but our God, this Chrestos" (for so Jesus was called before the Old Testament was integrated into Christianity, at which time Chrestos [good one] was changed to Christos [messiah]) "is completely brand new! How can a god be brand new? Where has he been before?"

A bunch of sell-outs, like Justin Martyr and Ireneaus, couldn't take the taunts. They had to make their god more involved in the world in the past. Original Christianity, i.e. Marcionism, posited that the world was created by the evil god of the Old Testament and that the Heavenly Father and Jesus Chrestos constituted a God much higher than him, but that this much higher God having not been the creator of OUR world, had had nothing to do with this world until the time that Jesus came down to Capernaum from heaven in the 15th year of Tiberius. That wouldn't do for Justin and Ireneaus.

So, they merged the two gods into one, and overcame the objections about the evil of the OT god by allegorizing everything. But they did this not with any actual conviction that the OT was the truth, but that they needed such a ploy so they could say to the Pagans, "our God is older than Zeus, for Moses' writings are older than Homer!!!!!"

Thus it was, and so we are deceived today.

At 4:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 4:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting views. I think that the evidence is not in favor of your theory. The earliest Christian writings are those of Paul, and they contain constant references to the Tanakh.

But let's not argue about this point.

Thanks for visiting . . . and 'subscribing', whatever that means (I only blog here).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Interesting views. I think that the evidence is not in favor of your theory. The earliest Christian writings are those of Paul, and they contain constant references to the Tanakh."

By 'subscribing' I meant I clicked the little box that emails me when a new comment is posted.

As to what you say above, this is actually the best part of the theory that Marcionism was the original form of Christianity. When you read Paul's epistles you ought to notice that his use of the Tanak is strained and his arguments from the Tanak rarely make sense. Paul generally seems to be a smart guy so why is his interpretation of the Tanak so strained and 'out there'?

The Marcionite canon consisted of 10 of Paul's letters (they didn't have Titus, 1st and 2nd Timothy, nor Hebrews) and one gospel akin to Luke. And their versions of these epistles of Paul were all shorter than ours, as their verion of 'Luke' also was. Guess what was missing: Paul's convoluted arguments and strange illogical interpretations of the Tanak.

The theory that Marcionism was the original form of Christianity first posits that Marcion's version of Paul's epistles was the original version or at least closer to it than the 'orthodox' or Catholic version which we know use. The strained usage of the Tanak is then interpolation by orthodoxizing scribes. This explains why Justin Martyr in 150 AD makes no use of Paul and why orthodoxy seems either oblivious to his existence of doesn't care to use him until 180 (despite pre-dated fraudulent works written around 180 like the 1st epistle of Clement which is nothing but a 'Paul quote fest' written to pretend that Paul had had authority in the early orthodox church and thus give credence to the new push to put him in the canon).

Quite frankly, early orthodoxy avoided Paul at all costs, since he was literally "the apostle of the heretics." Justin Martyr dares not mention the name of Marcion's apostle, for he is properly owned by Marcion at this time. But by 180 the Catholic church has figured out that editing Paul's epistles just slightly enough to fake him being orthodox would be advantageous to them, for Paul was clearly a popular fellow and if WE could make use of his writings and sort of claim ownership of Paul, well then WE could prevail over THEM.

So, the orthodox stold Paul from his original owners and placed a "property of the Catholic church" label on him via the interpolated usage of the Tanak. Thus is my theory anyhow.


At 9:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

One would need to remove not only the Tanakh references from Paul but also all allusions to the Law and Judaism. There doesn't seem to me to be much Paul left after all those excisions.

The other problem is that there doesn't appear to be much evidence of Gnosticism prior to the second century C.E. I haven't yet been convinced of an early Gnosticism, but I've not looked at the issue for a few years now.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:22 AM, Anonymous Marty Caudle said...

One would also have to remove the prophecies... Again, it is man in his fallible wisdom practicing idolatry, that is creating a God to conform to his own values and desires. I can accept a potter who would destroy flawed clay pots he had created. Is not God the potter, the creator? Did not God destroy men, women, and children in the flood? Is not every man, woman, and child that believeth not condemned already?

If God uses man as the instrument to reach out and deliver the message of the Gospel, and save people from their Spiritual death, then why is it not understandable that He would not also use man to reach out and apply His wrath?

But again, if I remember a premise of Biblical hermaneutics, it is that God is infallible, while man is not. Man does not always act in accordance with the will of God. Thus we have "bad" things happening that aren't by the hand of God, but none-the-less allowed by God, just as the first sin was allowed by God. Thus God remains sovereign in circumstances.

Unfortunately, "wise" men often fail to evaluate things that happen according to God's wisdom, but create a false need to reconcile everything in the Bible to their own limited human understanding. Some things we won't know until we are there with God...

But one thing we do know, God will be glorified in all things. And thus, even in children being killed, God's answer is the cross.

Even His own son was not spared his wrath, but he was made sin so that we may be made righteous.

At 6:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Marty, for the comment.

The problem arises because we know that we would not believe anyone today claiming divine revelation to kill others.

The difficulty thus remains for many confronted by such verses.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:47 AM, Anonymous Matt said...

You ask how Swinburne would treat

"Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy (charam) all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:3)"

I think one thing Swinburne could say is that the context calls into question a literal reading of this passage.

In Sam 15 Saul is ordered to kill all the Amalekites and put everything they own under the ban "herem" the texts states he did kill every Amalekite except Agag who is executed by Samuel in the same chapter. He is condemned for taking plunder and violating the ban. Taken literally this would mean that all the Amalekite's were killed at the end of Sam 15.

Several contextual factors count strongly against this reading.

First, I'd note that a literal reading of this passage contradicts what is affirmed by the narrator elsewhere in the biblical narrative. In Sam 29 David is said to have regularly raided Amalekite towns full of Amalekites. In Sam 30 a sizeable Amalekite army attacks Ziklag (David's town) and captures all the women in it. David pursues fights is said to have fought a long battle wiped them out and 200 Amalekites flee on horseback. In 2 Sam an Amalekite claims to have killed Saul, in Esther and Haman is an Agagite, in the time of Hezekiah Amalekites are said to be living in the land and so on, in fact in Sam 15 Samuel says he is making Agag's mother childless which suggests of course she is alive.

Second, I'd note that an intelligent narrator/redactor would know this and appears to have inserted Sam 15 in the narrative despite this, obviously then the author did not intend to affirm both accounts of history as literally true.

Third, I'd note that 1 Sam 15 contains obvious rhetorical exageration.
1.The numbers in Samuels army is to large to be historically accurate, a fact the redactor and reading would have known, exagerated numbers is common ANE hyperbole.
2.The size of the battle is obviously exagerated, Saul fights from Havila to Shur, Shur is on the edge of Egypt, Havila is in saudi arabia, this too appears to be a hugely exaggerated account.

3. The text uses language of striking them all with the sword, and "devoting" them which is common in ANE war rhetoric, the same language is used in Joshua where the evidence strongly suggests its hyperbolic. Its used hyperbolically in judges 1, The language of no men-women, children etc being spared is used hyperbolically in Chronicles.

4. We know that ANE war rhetoric frequently used language like this hyperbolically in there records of war.

So on balance the best evidence is that Sam 15 should not be taken literally, it rather is a hyperbolic account of Saul's victory over the Amalekites and does not purport to describe what literally happened.

At 10:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Matt. I suppose that Swinburne would need to make some hermeneutical move of the type proposed. Yet, one could retort that the fact of surviving Amalekites implies only that the divine orders were not carried out. The basic problem might remain.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:43 PM, Anonymous Matt said...


The problem is 1 Sam 15 states that with regard to the Amalekite people the order was carried out.

See the command in context,

3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy[a] all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”... 7 Then Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt. 8 He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. 9 But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves[b] and lambs—everything that was good."

So 1 Sam 15 states not just the God commanded it but that Saul carried it out with regards the people.

Agag is executed only a few verses latter.

So we have in 1 Sam an account using obviously hyperbolic motiffs claiming God ordered and Saul carried out the killing of every Amalekite and latter accounts in more down to earth style affirming this was not literally true.

I think then in context there is good reason for rejecting a literal reading of 1 Sam 15

At 7:12 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

About this quote:

"Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys."

What would "totally destroy" mean if it's not literal (aside from the question of whether or not it was ever actually done)?

By the way, I go by "Jeffery," which is why I sign off that way.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice" -- Yet on a careful reading of the text, Saul did intend to sacrifice both the sheep and king Agag when he got to Gilgal. He had not disobeyed the command to slaughter them, but had only deferred it so as to make a sacrifice rather than a mere slaughter out of them. And this is exactly what Samuel ends up doing: when he "butchered Agag before the LORD in Gilgal" that was a human sacrifice. If it was an execution, he would have done it in the street where he had met Saul. That he bothered to take Agag to Gilgal (the exact thing Saul himself was attempting to do) and "butchered him" there in the official place of sacrifice "before the LORD" (no less) shows it was a human sacrifice. What we really have going on here is politics. The reason Samuel had sent Saul on this mission to begin with was that he hoped Saul would fail and die, since he already had determined to replace him with David. When Saul succeeded, and returned alive, he could not let Saul sacrifice Agag in Gilgal and get the praise of the people (yes, that was a sick and barbarous society). He had to take that honor to himself, and sacrifice Agag personally, to rob Saul of the "honor" so that he would still be on track to replace him with David. Its was all politics, not divine revelation.

At 2:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting analysis, Beowulf2k8. Thanks for the comment.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:37 AM, Anonymous Charles said...

Hello, thank you for making this transcript (and a link to the original video) available. I just discovered your blog by following a link from Bill Vallicella's blog. I found this article by following a link from your most recent article concerning Ann Barnhardt's condemnation of the Koran.

Some of the comments here on Swinburne's style of metaphorical hermeneutics seem to be missing the point. Professor Swinburne quite deliberately does not claim that the original authors of the texts that we now call the Old Testament meant by their texts what Christians mean by them.

The point is that although the first author might have really meant that blessed are those who kill Babylonian children, or slaughter the Amelekites, or commit some other horrific and violent act, that does not matter to the Christian who uses that text as an allegory to explain a moral teaching.

There is no reason to look for inconsistencies in Samuel in order to justify a metaphorical reading of that book: we can read the Old Testament metaphorically whether or not the original authors intended it to be read that way.

One might quite reasonably ask, "Why bother?" Why take someone else's text, full of unpleasant and violent acts commanded by a vindictive God, and use it as a source of metaphors for moral teachings? Why not just invent your own parables, as Jesus and numerous other teachers have done? I haven't a clue what the answer to this question is: I do not have the necessary historical knowledge.

But it doesn't really matter why they did it. All that matters is that they did do it, which is a historical fact well supported by evidence, at least according to Swinburne. I am not qualified to judge his claims but he appears to know his early Christian history quite well.

The metaphorical reading of the Old Testament is thus not a new method, created by contemporary Christians in an attempt to disclaim embarrassing parts of their holy book, it is the original interpretation by the first Christians to adopt that text into their own sacred literature.

Therefore, if we wish to know the Christian meaning of apparently violent passages in the Old Testament, we must interpret them metaphorically in the tradition of the early Christians.

This is a rather different situation from that of the violent passages in the Koran, which were and are interpreted literally according to Muslim tradition.

At 7:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The early Christians may even have been following the example of the Jews themselves in reinterpreting scripture, for midrash hermeneutics precedes the Church Fathers.

But I wonder if the reinterpretation really solves the problem. Other Christians among the Fathers probably didn't reinterpret the violent verse.

And the literal image of dashing an infant's brains out against a rock remains highly disturbing even if used as a figure of speech to be interpreted allegorically.

Thanks for visiting, and for the comments.

Jeffery Hodges

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