(by Paul Copan)
Thom Stark has offered a lengthy response to my book Is God a Moral Monster? His online book is entitled: Is God a Moral Compromiser? When a book is laden with sarcasm, distortions, and ad hominem attacks, genuine dialogue and cordial exchange—the stuff of genuine scholarship—become difficult, if not preempted.
My good friend Matt Flannagan, with whom I have collaborated on various projects, has extensively engaged with Stark in the past. (Note: I have posted his response alongside my posting.) I’ve held off on commenting on Stark for this very reason, as the experience of others shows that engaging with Stark on such topics tends to be unproductive.
Let me make some preliminary comments on Stark.
First, Stark accuses me of ignoring the critical scholars. Keep in mind that I am writing for a popular audience—a group that isn’t going to read at a scholarly level but who are reading the New Atheists. Mentioning these critics is simply a springboard to launch into the topic of Old Testament ethical issues; these men are hardly legitimate sources of critique, even if they raise points discussed by critical scholars.
Second, it’s disappointing that Stark simply writes off Old Testament scholars who have endorsed my book, calling them “Little Leaguers.” These include Christopher Wright (Ph.D. Cambridge), Gordon Wenham (Ph.D. Cambridge), and Tremper Longman (Ph.D. Yale). They have earned their stripes at leading academic institutions. Stark’s demeaning talk strikes me as disrespectful and unprofessional. One gets the impression from reading Stark that those who agree with him are the “real” scholars.
Third , Stark assumes I have no background in biblical studies. Not so. I’d imagine that I’ve probably logged the same number formal academic hours (if not more) in biblical/theological studies than Stark—though Stark would no doubt dismiss such training as “Little League.” I have a B.A. in Biblical Studies as well as an M.Div. (Having studied Greek and Hebrew)—in addition to an M.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in philosophy (in which I also took courses in theology). I’m also a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, and I have presented at SBL as well as the American Academy of Religion. Furthermore, I am a Fellow of the Institute for Biblical Research.
Fourth, Stark mentions Baruch Halpern as one of his “Major League” scholars. Yet Halpern has actually written an endorsement for one of Tremper Longman’s coauthored books, A Biblical History of Israel: “The most talented trio in the last fifty years to turn their attention to recounting the history of Israel.” William Dever, another big leaguer (of whom Stark might approve) , recommends this same book: “I cannot imagine a more honest, more comprehensive, better documented effort from a conservative perspective.” Another evangelical archaeologist (whom I cite in connection with the Canaanite question), Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen (Liverpool), has written On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans). This hefty book is robustly endorsed by William Hallo (Yale) and Harry Hoffner Jr. (University of Chicago)—leading scholars in this field, whom I also cite in my book. So I think a bit greater academic fair-mindedness is warranted rather than demeaning dismissal and condescension.
Or think of the archaeologist/Egyptologist James Hoffmeier (another evangelical), to whom I refer in my book. Baruch Halpern endorses Hoffmeier’s Ancient Israel in Sinai (Oxford University Press): “Hoffmeier furnishes a sophisticated fresh approach to the Biblical Exodus traditions filled with detailed Egyptological background, and utterly indispensable because of its basis in recent, and in many cases as yet unpublished, archaeological data. This is a virtual encyclopedia of the Exodus.”
Fifth, as to the charge of selectively citing scholars, I would say this: Look no farther than my own endorsers! There are points at which I would disagree with Longman, Wright, and Wenham (and they with me), but I would hardly call this selective. I have tried to weigh and make judgments of a number of scholars on different sides of the debate. What’s more: have I really duped these Cambridge- and Yale-educated scholars so that they endorsed my book without reading it, or are they completely misinformed too?
Sixth, consider the question of worldview/philosophical as well as hermeneutical assumptions. For example, one’s presuppositions will affect the degree to which one gives the benefit of the doubt to Scripture’s authors’/editors’ trustworthiness. One’s presuppositions will affect one’s view of the Scripture’s canonical coherence and mutual reinforcement (as Matt Flannagan notes in his post). One’s presuppositions will also affect whether one views Yahweh as a mere tribal deity in Israel’s history (before the fifth century BC) or as the “one true God.”
Take the last set of dueling assumptions. When we see that Yahweh is the “cloud-rider” on a chariot (2 Sam. 22:10-12; Psalm 29; 104:3; Isa. 19:1), is this syncretistic? After all, in Ugaritic literature, Baal is the chariot rider on the clouds. What of the mentions of the Chaoskampf (the divine effort to subdue chaos and bring order) in the Bible? There’s Yahweh’s battle against Leviathan the dragon (tanniyn) mentioned in Isa. 27:1; yet the Ugaritic refers to Baal’s fighting against tannin (dragon) and lotan. Is this polytheistic syncretism? I would argue that the biblical texts are polemical and subversive. They appropriate literature familiar to ancient Near Easterners, and they present Baal and other deities with the one true God, Yahweh. Yahweh literarily displaces them. The same is true in the creation story: the deep, the darkness, the sea, and even the heavenly bodies were gods in their own right in ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies (accounts of the world’s origin). Yet in Genesis 1 they are domesticated and seen as the creation of God himself. Again, we have displacement, not polytheistic syncretism.
Another presuppositional issue is that the place of archaeological discovery and what this may “prove” or “disprove” about the Bible. For example, he claims that I offer no evidence for the exodus or the Canaanite conquest. For one thing, this wasn’t my purpose in writing the book, even indirectly. For another, I cite books that address these topics at length—namely, those authored by James Hoffmeier and Kenneth Kitchen. For a brief overview, however, see “Did the Exodus Never Happen?”. Along these lines, one could also examine Tremper Longman’s coauthored A Biblical History of Israel (Westminster John Knox Press). No, the evidence—which is indirect—does not prove or disprove the exodus. Rather, it presents plausible historical context for the event’s historical occurrence. In addition, I do mention in the book the archaeological evidence surrounding the gradual transition from Canaanite domination to Israelite domination. I follow Egyptologist Alan Millard’s work. He argues that Israel’s settling in the land was a gradual infiltration rather than a dramatic military conquest, which is what the biblical text affirms.
Seventh, as I’m in the midst of a number of writing and editing projects, I’m even less inclined to respond to Stark, at least with any comprehensiveness. Even before Stark wrote a response, I had begun compiling material based on further research as well as cordial (!) interaction various friends and critics who offered helpful suggestions. For instance, I should have elaborated more on the word(s) herem/haram (sometimes translated “utter destruction/utterly destroy”) at places like Jeremiah 25:9, where Yahweh promises to “utterly destroy” Judah by using Babylon. Were the majority of Judahites annihilated or destroyed as a people?
Eighth, I have approached Baker Books about a second edition in which I could incorporate this further research and also do some tweaking/clarifying on some certain points Stark raises. Also, I am working on coediting a book on warfare in the Old Testament (IVP Academic). Matt Flannagan and I have written a lengthy chapter that responds to the sorts of challenges Stark raises on the warfare issue. Also, I’ll be presenting at a conference in November on slavery in the Old Testament. This will be an occasion to reply to any relevant challenges that Stark raises. So stay tuned.
Finally, Stark’s critique resorts to much bluster, condescension, and distortion; he makes abundant claims and arguments that are either false or tenuous (as Flannagan points out). As a specific sampling, Old Testament scholar Richard Hess (whom I cite frequently in my Moral Monster book and who also endorsed it) responds to Thom Stark in a separate post at Parchment and Pen. I’m keeping my own piece here separate from Hess’s specific comments (as well as Flannagan’s comments) so that Stark, if he chooses, can respond directly to Hess’s (and Flannagan’s) rebuttal.