CPBD 024: Hector Avalos – The End of Biblical Studies

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 3, 2010 in Podcast,William Lane Craig

cpbd024

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher Hector Avalos. First, Hector clears up a major misunderstanding of his book The End of Biblical Studies: he does not argue that Biblical studies should end, but that it should stop being apologetic in nature and instead become a secular field of study like Homeric studies or History of China studies. We also discuss:

  • the origins of religious violence
  • his debate with William Lane Craig

Download CPBD episode 024 with Hector Avalos. Total time is 27:41.

avalosHector Avalos links:

Links for things we discussed:

Note: in addition to the regular blog feed, there is also a podcast-only feed. You can also subscribe on iTunes.

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Maher March 3, 2010 at 6:25 am

holy crap luke, congrats in interviewing such a big name.

  (Quote)

Reginald Selkirk March 3, 2010 at 9:15 am

That was fascinating. Will you be producing a transcript at some point? Prof. Avalos tends to rush his syllables a bit too much for me.

  (Quote)

svenjamin March 3, 2010 at 9:46 am

I normally don’t listen to these, as listening to an audio interview takes up a lot more time than reading an article. But I figured I should listen to this one, as I have a copy of The End of Biblical Studies that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet.

I don’t understand Avalos’s thesis about religious violence being a conflict over scarce resources. ” If my recollection/interpretation of the conversation is accurate, he essentially says that religious violence is about scarce resources, whether real, social, or imaginary. But this doesn’t strike me as a particularly interesting or useful idea. It’s simply saying “conflict is conflict about something or nothing.”

I think recent Yaer’s recent comment was incredibly apt(I think that was the name). We see ‘religious’ violence occur because religions by their nature generate tightly knit social networks of individuals bound by common causes. Under certain economic/political/social circumstances such networks are extremely conducive to the mobilization of common political action. Yaer’s observations seem conclusive to me.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 3, 2010 at 9:47 am

Glad to hear you liked it! I doubt I’ll have time to produce a transcript, though. :(

  (Quote)

RA March 3, 2010 at 10:13 am

Nice interview. Now I’m going to listen to his debate.

  (Quote)

Chris Hallquist March 3, 2010 at 12:33 pm

I’m not actually sure the end of Biblical studies would be a bad thing. The amount of interest in the documents and number of people in the field is all out of proportion to the actual amount of material scholars have to work with. Several years before Avalos’ book, Ehrman put out a popular book on the historical Jesuus where he said, offhandedly, that there wasn’t much left to say on the subject. Though he hasn’t said so explicitly, I get the impression that the lack of stuff to be said about the New Testament itself has pushed Ehrman and a lot of other New Testament scholars to reinvent themselves as historians of early Christianity in general.

  (Quote)

Rhys March 3, 2010 at 1:33 pm

That was a good discussion. It was incredibly dishonest of Dr Craig to assert that his mistakes were due to a printing error.

  (Quote)

Haecceitas March 3, 2010 at 1:42 pm

“It was incredibly dishonest of Dr Craig to assert that his mistakes were due to a printing error.”

You should hear both sides of the issue before reaching such a conclusion. I think Craig has answered this accusation of dishonesty somewhere, but I can’t remember where. Perhaps someone else can?

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 3, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Cool, found it!

For archive purposes, here is Craig’s response:

I’m happy to clarify for Dr. Avalos what I meant by “printer’s errors;” the rest of his remarks hardly merit comment.

Since I don’t type, I’ve written all my books and articles longhand, including the book in question. The hand-written manuscript was delivered to a typist, who produced the typescript using an IBM Selectric typewriter with “golf balls” for different fonts. Later this typescript was re-done on a computer. Edwin Mellen Press used the camera-ready copy which I supplied to print the book. Somewhere in the transmission of the text letter-substitutions crept in, resulting in several misspellings. As I said in the debate, I take full responsibility for these spelling mistakes, since it was up to me to proof-read the text. These misspellings have, of course, no impact on the argument of the book. But then Dr. Avalos is less interested in the argument than in impugning the integrity of his opponent.

Such extraordinary ad hominem attacks by Dr. Avalos are unseemly and highly unprofessional and serve, I’m afraid, only to sully his own reputation.

Dr. Avalos’ handling of my argument concerning the expression “the first day of the week” (Mark 16.2) well illustrates his modus operandi of half-truth and distortion. As I explained in the debate, the use of the cardinal number rather than the ordinal number violates the conventions of Hellenistic Greek, but not of Aramaic. I even supplied a reference to an Aramaic targum where the very phrase “the first day of the week” is found (Targum Esth. II 3.7) as an illustration. Now the half-truth mentioned by Dr. Avalos is that this targum comes from the period of late Aramaic (A.D. 200-700+). In the scant literature in middle Aramaic (200 B.C. – A.D. 200) we don’t have any surviving texts that happen to mention the first day of the week. But we do have texts illustrating in middle Aramaic the convention of substituting the cardinal number for the ordinal number, as in, e.g., “the first month.” The fact that no text survives having the very words in Mark 16.2 is thus inconsequential, an accident of historical preservation. That Mark’s phrase is a Semitism is widely acknowledged and often remarked on by commentators.

What is most bizarre to me is: William Lane Craig doesn’t type????? This guy has written a bajillion pages of material. By hand??? Yikes.

  (Quote)

Justfinethanks March 3, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Yeah, that’s pretty bizarre. But what left me a wee bit dumbfounded was this:

lukeprog: The hand-written manuscript was delivered to a typist, who produced the typescript using an IBM Selectric typewriter with “golf balls” for different fonts. Later this typescript was re-done on a computer.

So just so we are clear, William Lane Craig, a man who makes part of his living arguing for the accuracy of the New Testament in describing what really happened in history, can’t get his own work to get transfered from longhand to a typewriter to a computer (across a timespan of a couple months probably) with total accuracy and fidelity to what he originally wrote. In the 21st century.

Sometimes I wish there was a pill I could give these people to grant them the capacity to appreciate irony.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 3, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Justfinethanks,

LOL!

  (Quote)

OrdinaryClay March 3, 2010 at 3:49 pm

If I’m not mistaken the book in question was published in 1989. No?

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 3, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Right.

  (Quote)

Bill Maher March 3, 2010 at 6:27 pm

OrdinaryClay: If I’m not mistaken the book in question was published in 1989. No?  

That is 2 decades to fix it though.

  (Quote)

Briang March 3, 2010 at 8:52 pm

I’m somewhat surprised that he recommend the RSV, since I’ve also heard that version recommended by Catholic apologists.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 3, 2010 at 9:14 pm

I’m sticking by the NET. Yes the notes are still biased, but at least they necessarily give more information than any of the other Bibles.

  (Quote)

Briang March 3, 2010 at 9:21 pm

Luke,

Can you spell out the full name? I tried googling “NET Bible” and I didn’t see anything relevant, as each word is far too common.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 3, 2010 at 10:53 pm
Nonchai March 4, 2010 at 2:58 am

It was good to hear Dr Avolos being interviewed.

However due to time limitations you only touched the surface of the issues he is expert on. May i suggest you interview him again – maybe even in series form. He has much to say on biblical archaeology that wuld interest atheist listeners. Ive read his book and it led me to read books by WilliamWilliam Dever.

I would love to hear him commment on recent trends in dating the gospels earlier such as developed by Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado.

If you can get hold of William Dever that would be cool tool But again – do several interviews. One podcase doesnt do justice.

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 4, 2010 at 5:44 am

Here is a reply from Dr. Avalos about “printer’s errors”:

Hello, Mr. Muehlhauser,
Thanks for posting that podcast. You asked about why I did not discuss further with you Dr. Craig’s explanation of his “printer’s errors” on Debunking Christianity.

The reason is that I have already commented on my debate with Craig elsewhere, and there were so many other topics worth discussing, that I did not think I should spend much more time discussing Dr. Criag’s feeble explanations.

In his DC explanation, Dr. Craig still does not explain why he is calling his own errors “printer’s errors.” The latter is usually used for errors the printer (publisher) makes, not the ones the author makes.

Second, if you listen to the debate, you see him not so much taking full responsibility, but also suggesting his wife was partly responsible.

Errors are one thing, but not being truthful about them is another.

Besides, these errors were systematic and repeated, showing that he may not know Aramaic as well as he thinks. One word he consistently misspelled was the Aramaic word for MESSIAH, a pretty important word.

His argument did depend on Aramaic. In that debate, I showed that he did not understand that the supposed Aramaic expression behind Mark 16:2 did not need to be Galilean or even from the first century, which was the whole point of his argument there.

Dr. Avalos

  (Quote)

Reginald Selkirk March 4, 2010 at 7:16 am

lukeprog: As I said in the debate, I take full responsibility for these spelling mistakes, since it was up to me to proof-read the text.

Calling them “printer’s errors” is taking full responsibility?

  (Quote)

lukeprog March 4, 2010 at 7:31 am

Yeah, that ain’t quite right.

  (Quote)

Supernova March 4, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Dr. Avalos:
Besides, these errors were systematic and repeated, showing that he may not know Aramaic as well as he thinks.

If it was done systematically and repeatedly than maybe he really does know Aramaic and is just trying to deceive us laymen.

Dr. Avalos:
One word he consistently misspelled was the Aramaic word for MESSIAH, a pretty important word.

Did William Lane Craig ALWAYS misspell the Aramaic word for MESSIAH? If not, could you give an estimate on the percentage of him spelling it correctly and incorrectly?

Dr. Avalos:
His argument did depend on Aramaic. In that debate, I showed that he did not understand that the supposed Aramaic expression behind Mark 16:2 did not need to be Galilean or even from the first century, which was the whole point of his argument there.

William Lane Craig with regards to Mark 16:2 says:

Dr. Craig:

As I explained in the debate, the use of the cardinal number rather than the ordinal number violates the conventions of Hellenistic Greek, but not of Aramaic. I even supplied a reference to an Aramaic targum where the very phrase “the first day of the week” is found (Targum Esth. II 3.7) as an illustration. Now the half-truth mentioned by Dr. Avalos is that this targum comes from the period of late Aramaic (A.D. 200-700+). In the scant literature in middle Aramaic (200 B.C. – A.D. 200) we don’t have any surviving texts that happen to mention the first day of the week. But we do have texts illustrating in middle Aramaic the convention of substituting the cardinal number for the ordinal number, as in, e.g., “the first month.” The fact that no text survives having the very words in Mark 16.2 is thus inconsequential, an accident of historical preservation. That Mark’s phrase is a Semitism is widely acknowledged and often remarked on by commentators.

It seems that Craig’s point is valid here. Also, even if we grant that he was flat-out wrong on his Aramaic, how does that change the 4 facts he provided? There are several supporting facts for each of the 4 facts provided, so I don’t see how the misspelling of Aramaic destroys all of his supporting facts and therefore the 4 facts which they support. Now, there may very well be other reasons why the 4 facts are wrong, but specifically how would they be wrong on his spelling of Aramaic?

  (Quote)

Dr. Hector Avalos March 4, 2010 at 3:03 pm

RE: Supernova,
Dr. Craig does not have a valid point, as I have noted in my response [in the comments section] to his claims about Mark 16:2 at Debunking Christianity:
http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2008/01/dr-william-lane-craig-responds-to-dr.html

Here is part of my response addressed directly to Dr. Craig:

In regard to your explanation of Mark16:2, this is the claim of yours that I was trying specifically to refute:



“The fact that Mark uses ‘on the first day of the week’ confirms that his tradition is very old, even antedating the third day reckoning. This fact is confirmed by the linguistic character of the phrase in question. For although ‘the first day of the week’ is very awkward in the Greek, when translated back into Aramaic it is perfectly smooth and normal. This suggests that the empty tomb tradition reaches all the way back to the original language spoken by the first disciples themselves.
“

Source; William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton, Illinois:Crossway Books, 1994), p. 275.



However, as you yourself now note (but did not tell your readers/audience initially), your example from the Aramaic of the Esther Targum does not necessarily suggest, as you claim, that this tradition “reaches back to the original language spoken by the first disciples.” That would be Galilean Aramaic of the first century.



I pointed out that the expression in Mark 16:2 had its closest parallel in the Greek Bible version of Psalm 23:1. Thus, the author of Mark was more likely assimilating an expression already found in biblical Greek than reflecting anything in Galilean
Aramaic.

This, is also the opinion E. Maloney, of the recognized expert in Aramaic

“The days of the week are never mentioned in either biblical or Middle Aramaic… Since the phrase [mia Sabbaton/ou] occurs in the OG [ = Old Greek]… this use of the cardinal—unacceptable to Hellenistic Greek usage—is most likely due to imitation of the OG.”

Source: Source: Elliott C. Maloney, Semitic Interference in Marcan Syntax (SBL Dissertation Series; Chico, California:Scholars Press, 1981), pages 148, 150.



In sum, you cannot use that phrase in Mark 16:2 to confirm anything about any first century Galilean Aramaic origin of Mark 16:2, as you were trying to do.

  (Quote)

Supernova March 4, 2010 at 6:15 pm

RE: Dr. Hector Avalos,

Thanks you for your quick reply.

With regards to Mark 16:2 it seems it’s a game of more probability. Craig argues that the majority of scholars say that Mark 16:2 is a Semitism – a relic of an earlier Aramaic speaking milieu. You, on the other hand, use Elliott C. Maloney that says, “The days of the week are never mentioned in either biblical or Middle Aramaic.”

Craig responds saying but this is a half-truth. For example, there is a reference to an Aramaic targum where the very phrase “the first day of the week” is found (Targum Esth. II 3.7) Another example would be in Genesis 8:5 instead of ‘on the first day of the week’ it writes ‘on first day of the [tenth] month.’ In Ezra 6:15 you have “… on the third day of the month…” We also know that the cardinal number rather than the ordinal number violates the conventions of Hellenistic Greek. So, with regards to Mark 16:2 most scholars believe it to be a Semitism. You suggest it is not, correct?

But even with all of this- the linguistic disagreement you have wasn’t even part of Dr. Craig’s case in the debate. This was specifically noted by Dr. Craig. No where in the debate did he use the ‘first day of the week’ and he even asked suppose that he were wrong with regards to the Aramaic. “So what!?” he says for this has no bearing on the arguments he brought forth in the debate.

Once again thank you for your reply, Dr. Hector Avalos.

  (Quote)

Dr. Hector Avalos March 5, 2010 at 12:04 am

RE: Supernova,
I am not sure you are understanding the significance of the Greek parallel I am citing.
It would show that the Greek phrase in Mark 16:2 need not be an Aramaic phrase at all “for Mark” because Mark would be simply copying it from the Septuagint, which
he cited all the time. Note the parallel (Imperfect transcription):

Psalm 23:1 tes mias sabbaton
Mark 16:2 te mia ton sabbaton

Remember Dr. Craig’s claims concerning this Aramaic phrase : “This suggests that the empty tomb tradition reaches all the way back to the original language spoken by the first disciples themselves.”

Now, how can that be true if:
1. You can find that phrase much later even by his own admission (thus, you could
date Mark later just as well).

2. You find a similar Greek phrase in the pre-Christian Septuagint, which means
that it need not go back to Galilean Aramaic, which is what Craig would like
it to be ( (“the original language spoken by the first disciples themselves.”)

3. Mark quoted the Septuagint all the time, and he does not quote directly any Aramaic targums or tradition of which we know. In terms probability, therefore, the
better source is the Septuagint, not Galilean Aramaic

Dating Mark 16:2 to the time of the disciples is CRUCIAL for Dr. Craig’s FACTS. If Mark dates as late as the actual manuscripts we have (3rd-4th centuries), then the
Aramaic phrase he found is really meaningless for dating Mark to the time
of the resurrection event (or the disciples). It could date to the 3rd-4th centuries
just as well.

If Mark 16 is much later than the time of the supposed resurrection, then this would undermine Dr. Craig’s argument because Mark would be depending on sources whose validity he could not verify himself at the time he wrote. Actually, Mark could
not verify much of anything if he were not there, regardless of when he wrote.

But I will respond, if necessary, more thoroughly when I return from Atlanta, where I am going to a conference. I also might suggest reading The End of Biblical Studies,
where I provide more information on the fallacy of Dr. Craig’s arguments. It would
also same some time, as I would not have to repeat arguments I have answered.

  (Quote)

Supernova March 5, 2010 at 3:34 pm

RE: Dr. Hector Avalos,

Thank you, yet again, for taking the time and responding back.

With regards to Mark 16:2 it seems there are two sides: either it is a Semitism (making it primitive), or it is not and therefore can be dated later. However, the more important question is not necessarily is it a Semitism, but it is the early dating that matters.

Dr. Craig argues that the date is early/primitive because it lacks altogether the third day motif that is prominent in the kerygma. The kerygma, itself, is quite old. This is seen in 1 Cor. 15:4 where the “… on the third day… ” is used. The point Dr. Craig tries to make is if Mark 16:2 was a later legendary account than it should have been written in the more popular and accepted third day motif. B/c of this it ante-dates the third day motif, as previously said, is extremely old.

Also, there are other reasons to give early dates for the passage(s). For example, it is not trite with theological motifs and apologetically material than one would expect to find if it were a later account.

I hope the conference goes well!

  (Quote)

Hermes March 5, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Dr. Avalos, thank you for your comments and insight into this. I feel better informed from reading your words.

  (Quote)

Supernova March 5, 2010 at 7:35 pm

RE: Dr. Hector Avalos,

I feel the same way as Hermes and I’m thankful for your responses.

Dr. Hector Avalos you say, “3. Mark quoted the Septuagint all the time, and he does not quote directly any Aramaic targums or tradition of which we know. In terms probability, therefore, the better source is the Septuagint, not Galilean Aramaic.”

You are right in saying that the writer of Mark did use phrases that are in agreement with the Septuagint. However, I believe, that you are wrong to say that we don’t have any Aramaic targums or traditions that Mark uses. Dr. Craig A. Evans says we have good reasons to think Jesus’ language used in Mark is in agreement with “the proto-Masoretic text, with the Hebrew under-lying the Septuagint (perhaps even the Septuagint itself), and with the Aramaic para-phrase.”

Dr. Craig A. Evans writes, “There are significant examples in which Jesus’ language agrees with the Aramaic tradition. The paraphrase of Isa 6:9-10 in Mark 4:12 concludes with ” . . . and it be forgiven them.” Only the Isaiah Targum reads this way. The Hebrew and the Septuagint read “heal.”

Also, Dr. Craig Evans writes, “There are other instances of thematic and exegetical coherence between Jesus’ use of scripture and the Aramaic tradition. The parable of the Wicked Vineyard Tenants (Mark 12:1-12 par.) is based on Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard (Isa 5:l-7), as the dozen or so words in the opening lines of the Markan parable demonstrate.” With regards to to Isaiah 5 and Mark 12 Dr. Craig A. Evans says, “Thus the coherence between Targum Isaiah 5 and Mark 12 is distinctive, and probably cannot be explained away as coincidence. 4Q500, which dates to the first century B.C.E., alludes to Isaiah’s parable of the Vineyard and applies it to the Temple, demonstrating the antiquity of the exegetical orientation presupposed later in Jesus and later still in the Targum.”

Another point that Dr. Craig A. Evans provides is, “Perhaps most important of all is Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Jesus’ “good news” (etiangelion) harks back to the “good news” (bgr) of Isaiah, but not in the Hebrew: “O Zion, you that bring good news … say, `Behold, your God”‘ (40:9); or “who proclaims good news of good … who says to Zion, `Your God reigns”‘ (52:7); rather, in the Aramaic: “prophets who proclaim good news to Zion … say, `The kingdom of your God is revealed”‘ (Tg. Isa. 40:9); or “who proclaims good news … who says to … Zion, `The kingdom of your God is revealed”‘ (Tg. Isa. 52:7).”

Reference:
Lee Martin McDonald, James A. Sanders, Editors: The Canon Debate; Craig A. Evans, The Scriptures of Jesus and His Earliest Followers, p 191-194, 2002

  (Quote)

Dr. Hector Avalos August 18, 2010 at 9:41 am

Dear Supernova:
My apologies for the long delay in responding, but I have been very busy with
other projects.

You are correct to say that Jesus is portrayed as citing some traditions (e.g., in Mark 4:12) also found in the Aramaic Targums.

What I meant to suggest is that in the case of Mark 16:2, I know of no direct Aramaic source (targumic or otherwise) dated only to the time of Jesus (or the first century) that compares to what I find in the Septuagint.

Please note that I do know of this Aramaic tradition in Mark 4:12 because I discussed it in an on-line article published in 2007 and I quoted Dr. Craig Evans, as well: http://www.plowsharesproject.org/journal/php/article.php?issu_list_id=8&article_list_id=22

“Sometimes Jesus quotes from sources not regarded as scripture today. Consider the passage where Jesus explains the purpose of parables in Mark 4:12: “So that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven” (RSV). This is an allusion to Isaiah 6:9-10. If one looks at the Hebrew Bible, one will not find the final words (“and be [they] forgiven”) but rather “and (let there be) healing for him” (wrp’ lw). The Septuagint has “I shall heal them” (kai iasomai autous). The words “and be they forgiven” (yštbyq lhwn), however, are found in the Aramaic Targum of Isaiah.”

I said here “Jesus quotes” because I am speaking of how he is portrayed in Mark, rather than as an assertion of historical facticity.

But please note that these Targums can be later than the time of Jesus as most existing manuscripts of these Targums are from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

It is also difficult to know if the author of Mark is the one who knows the Targumic tradition or whether it actually goes back to Jesus. Thus, in Mark 5:41, note how the author of Mark actually inserts words in his Greek translation that are not present in the Aramaic phrase “Talitha qum(i)” Jesus is quoted as speaking. The Aramaic phrase means strictly, “Damsel, arise.” However, Mark’s Greek translation inserts “I say to you,” which is not in the Aramaic he quotes from Jesus.

Dr. Bruce Chilton, whom Dr. Craig Evans credits for many of his insights (see Craig A. Evans, “The Scriptures of Jesus and His Earliest Followers,” in L. E. McDonald and J. A. Sanders, eds., The Canon Debate [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002], p. 193, n. 25), says the following in regard to the parallels found in these targums:

“The argument is not that Jesus, the early preachers of his message, or
the Evangelists actually used the Targum; if our analysis of its chronology
is correct, this is out of the question. The evidence permits only of the
conclusion that some interpretative traditions later incorporated into the Targum, had formative influence on the wording of some of the sayings of Jesus.”
Source:Bruce Chilton, A Galilean Rabbi and His Bible: Jesus’ Use of the Interpreted Scripture of His Time (Wilmington,DE: Michael Glazier, 1984), p.70.

So, these targums really will not prove that the language in Mark 16:2 must be from the first century. The earliest manuscripts of Mark itself do not date to the first century. Thus, we cannot know if this Aramaic tradition was added in the second or third centuries, for example.

So I am consistent in my argument insofar as I credit the quotation in Mark 16:2 to the Septuagintal tradition because it is much closer than anything we find in an Aramaic Targum.

I, too, credit the Aramaic tradition found in Targum of Isaiah for the quote in Mark 4:12 because it is closer than anything else I find in the Hebrew Bible or Septuagint. If one finds the Aramaic of Mark 16:2 in a Galilean source dated to the time of Jesus (not manuscripts up to hundreds of years later), then I might change my mind.

In any case, all of these problems is why Dr. Craig cannot say that the phrase in question in Mark 16:2 supports this argument: “This suggests that the empty tomb tradition reaches all the way back to the original language spoken by the first disciples themselves.”

  (Quote)

lukeprog August 18, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Wow, Avalos returns!

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment