Lawson Stone

Stones Fence

Turning the Tables-The ABC’s of the Ten Commandments

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I hope nobody thinks that my review and criticisms of the History Channel series The Bible are driven by some sense of self-importance or need to nit-pick. Far from it! I doubt the History Channel will ever know I exist, and we’ll both be happier for it. It’s also not about despising attempts to present the Bible in a popular media format. I’m all for that too. Nor is it about persnickety perfectionism. For me, it’s partly about my suspicion of hype, a belief that media, even well-meaning media, must still be held accountable to their own hype, and my concern that Christians can easily be exploited in the name of “getting the word to people who might not otherwise get it.”

The fact is, this stuff is just fun to me. I’m one of those guys whose job is what he’d be doing for fun if he had some other job. I confess to being a complete geek on things related to the Old Testament. Maybe there are OT scholars out there who can step out of the role, take off the glasses, as it were, and see things apart from the vocation of being a scholarly reader of the Bible; but I can’t, and don’t even want to. Drives my family and friends crazy. I just enjoy spotting details, accurate as well as erring, in these mass-media exploitations of presentations about the Bible.

Of course, it’s important that I not shred every preacher I hear (including me) or intimidate Sunday School teachers or just become an insufferable bully! I cannot, though, just watch Bible-oriented movies, especially those claiming research-based accuracy and authenticity, and just wink at the mistakes. I have no problem when they say up front, hey this is a fictionalization inspired by the Bible. So I loved Prince of Egypt, even misted up at a couple points, found the periodic touch of authenticity exciting… but I find the typical Discovery Channel or History Channel fare, with its veneer of research laminated over a tabloid and sound-bite approach to things to be…well…hard to swallow.

kingsfieldI’ve already whined about the fact that of all the scholarly consultants engaged for the History Channel’s The Bible series, I found no Old Testament scholars though there are five New Testament scholars. Now it’s just possible they tried, but found us a curmudgeonly, surly and unpleasant lot and ran from the room screaming. I know those scholars…I’ve been one of those scholars!  I’d sympathize with that. But I suspect they just figured they didn’t need an OT scholar.

There is one almost infallible marker I have found for detecting how serious the producers of a movie featuring Moses are about research and authenticity. It’s something nobody notices, and something most producers think they can fake. Or if they try for authenticity, they never really try hard enough. It’s also just plain old Bible geek fun.

10-commandments-block

The traditional Hebrew square script

It’s simple. It’s the tablets of the law. The Ten Commandments. Did you know that the phrase “ten commandments” doesn’t appear in the Bible? The Hebrew “ten words” is the closest we get. They are the two tables of the covenant, or testimony.  So here are four tests of authenticity when you see the tablets of the law in a Bible based movie. First, size matters. It’s highly unlikely that they were as large as portrayed in any movie. Likely they were smaller than a standard piece of notebook paper. All the ancient covenant documents we have run much, much smaller than the big slabs we see in the movies. Second, the both-sides test. The Bible clearly states that the tablets were written front and back, and ancient tablets, if they were not display inscriptions built into a wall, were indeed written on both sides. Third, the “two-fer” test. My friend, Wheaton professor Dr. Sandra Richter notes this in her book Epic of Eden (page 87). Typically, the “two tablets” usually have Commandments 1-5 on Tablet #1 and then Commandments 6-10 on

The History Channel flunks the "Both Sides Test"

The History Channel flunks the “Both Sides Test”

Tablet #2. But this is wrong! The OT refers to the tablets as tablets of the covenant. In the ancient world, when two kings made covenant, there were two copies made, each deposited in the respective temples of the two covenanting kings. Of course, the two tablets were mainly identical, except for specific local references! For God and Israel, there weren’t two separate locations, since Yahweh appointed the Hebrew sanctuary, i.e. the tabernacle, then the temple, as his earthly palace. Thus the two identical copies both go in the ark in the innermost recess of the sanctuary.

So…when you watch a Moses movie, if the tablets are smaller, maybe even smaller than a sheet of regular notebook paper, that’s good. And if it’s evident the two tablets are written on both sides and identical, wow that’s even better.

Gezer

Paleo-Hebrew script on a stone tablet from the 10th Century B.C.

The fourth test is the script test and it’s the one I always enjoy looking for. Look at the script, the actual letters, used to write the commandments on the tablet. Okay, you non-Hebrew readers will not be as slick on this point as those who’ve taken a Hebrew course, but this is not really that difficult. One of the hardest things about learning Hebrew is the script. The letters don’t look like western letters and they’re written from right to left, as you can see in the picture above. What most don’t realize, though, is that the “square” Hebrew letters we learn in Hebrew 101 as well as the “cursive” script we learn for modern Israeli Hebrew are a late innovation, not the original Hebrew script. The earliest alphabetic languages in the Levant (the coastal region on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea) were written in a script that apparently got invented by semitic forced laborers in the Egyptian copper mines of the Sinai peninsula. This “proto-sinaitic” script took a sign that denoted a whole word, but just let it represent the first sound of the word. Thus was born the alphabet. The script spread rapidly and was used in Phoenicia, Moab, Ammon and of course, in Israel. It’s the father of our own western alphabet.

Sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., probably after the Judeans returned from exile in Babylon in 539 B.C., a different script began being used, one that was squarish looking and is called “Aramaic Block” or “Aramaic Square” script. The ancients were painfully aware of this. When the sect called the “Samaritans” tried to assert that their version of Hebrew faith was more ancient than that of the returning exiles in 539 B.C., they produced a copy of the Pentateuch. They knew the script had changed, and knew that to fool everyone into thinking their religion was older, they’d have to produce a text written in the archaic or paleo script. But unfortunately, they’d forgotten what it looked like. But you know religious folks, we can just make it up! So the Samaritans fabricated an almost comically archaizing script.

Heston-tablets-Commandments

“Just take these two tablets and call me in 40 days…”

Think now…Moses and the Hebrews had been in Egypt, were slaves, and they are in the Sinai. Ring any alphabetic bells? And they were there about 1275 B.C. (give or take). Too early for the square script…they’d use some form of the paleo-Hebrew script. So for the first 3 marks of authenticity, I’ll go ahead and tell you nobody gets the size, two-sided or identical copies criterion right. But on script, we have a winner. First, let’s look at the History Channel’s The Bible’s handling of the tablets at the top of this post. At the end of the 2-hour opener, we have a shot of the tablets, and BEHOLD: it’s written in the later square script, and only scratched, not inscribed deeply in the stone.

For the winner, we go back to Cecil B. DeMille and The Ten Commandments. Check out those babies Heston is packing, nicely written in a form of the paleo script! Not bad for a movie made at the Dawn of Civilization. When I first saw that as a teen-ager, I thought “What a hokey, phoney looking attempt to reproduce Hebrew!” Little did I know…how the years change a guy! Some even say the reddish tablets reflect a preference for red surfaces for some inscriptions, but I leave that point to others.

Now here’s a puzzle. In the PR for The Bible, a picture was put out portraying the tablets, but the script on them is neither the block used at the end of the opening installment, nor the paleo-Hebrew, but something else. At first I thought “Good grief, they’ve used the Samaritan script!” Then I thought no, it’s “Rashi” script (from the middle ages)…But I’m not sure. It actually looks to me like some kind of runic script, like Ogham or something, but the letters sort of resemble the paleo style. I’m not a paleographer by specialty, so if any of my academic friends who do epigraphy/paleography  know what script this is, I’d love to know too! Wouldn’t it be cool beyond words if the producers found some very obscure lapidary script style for Late Bronze Age alphabetic inscriptions? I say, SURE! I’d retract all my other criticisms in tribute to that one piece of brilliance!

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Lawson Stone

Lawson Stone

I'm 59 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 35 years, my three adult children and one son-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.
  • http://riversfromeden.wordpress.com/ Christopher Jones

    What on earth? We’ve got a left parantheses sign (, the Western Arabic numeral 4 repeated over and over, the Eastern Arabic numerals for 2, 3 and 9, the letter Q, the letter W repeated over and over again, and some Greek letters notably a chi, phi, lambda and omega. Looks like someone just mashed their keyboard over and over again in a couple of different unicode fonts to make some “exotic”-looking writing.

    • Kyle

      Christopher,
      I disagree. I think it’s actually a block-script font of paleo-Hebrew. It looks like they went to the Table of Alphabets in the front of Gesenius, selected one of the early scripts, and sent it to a type-setter who created a font. The Geschtalt of the letters is there (but I don’t know what to do with those parentheses!).

  • Lawson Stone

    Yes, the number “4″ is the letter re’sh. The parenthesis could be a somewhat misunderstood lamed? I’ve seen Phoenician alphabet charts where the lamed looked a lot like a parenthesis. I’m more and more convinced this was someone’s attempt to interpret a table of Hebrew-Phoenician/Early Aramaic script and give it a kind of runic vibe.

  • James Mace

    Lawson, I wonder if you can direct me to evidence showing “Samaritans fabricated an almost comically archaizing script”? I suppose that might be due to its contrast from, e.g., the Gezer calendar, Siloam inscription, Lachish ostraca, etc.? Other factors involved?

    • Lawson Stone

      The paleo-Hebrew and its parent scripts are well known and documented at least to the Late Bronze Age. No pre-cursor of the Samaritan script, specifically, at the points where it deviates from the Paleo-Northwest Semitic scripts, has been found from the pre-exilic era. The paleo-hebrew script was known by the Qumran scribes so it was not entirely lost, but the Samaritan script, where it deviates from the paleo-script, has no precedents. We know the dates for things like the Gezer Calendar, Phoenician, Old Aramaic, etc. Nothing in any of the early Iron Age or Late Bronze Age scripts provides a fore-runner to any of the points at which the samaritan script deviates from paleo-Hebrew. Ergo, unless and until we find such evidence, they invented it. The only reason they would have invented it would be to try to distinguish their texts from those of Jerusalem-based Judaism. But that distinction itself would be meaningless until the emergence of Aramaic script as the standard for Jewish scribal practice. So…no significantly ancient evidence for the distinctive features of the Samaritan script, no need for such a distinction anyway until the rise of the square Aramaic script…and the manner in which they sought to create the distinct script involves pretty crude archaizing and ornamentation, not to mention the bigger issue of significant textual alteration, always in the direction of their own views.
      So yes, I believe it was a fabricated script, created to assist “insider propaganda,” that is, to prevent defections out of Samaritanism, and that it was invented by taking the Paleo-Hebrew script, in possibly an incomplete form, and modifying it in ways they thought created the impression of superior antiquity.

      • Lawson Stone

        James,
        Specifically, the characters Bet, He, Het, Nun, Samek, Qoph (maybe), Shin and Taw in Samaritan are plausibly derived from Paleo-Hebrew. The Square script and the paleo-script are different and the Samaritan looks more like the Paleo. On the other hand, I can find almost no connection of Samaritan Aleph, Gimel, Dalet, Waw, Zayin and Kaph with the Paleo scripts. The Tet, Mem and Ayin not only don’t look like the Paleo, they look derived from the Aramaic Square script. I can find no historical precedent for the Yod, Lamed, or Pe. The Pe might actually be derived from the Square script and then inverted. I also find the tendency to ornament letters using the same set of letter extensions, something we don’t see much of in ancient texts. So seeing the innovations, seeing signs of derivation from the square script, having no evidence of any Samaritan-like script from the Iron II or earlier, and having a pretty good stemma for the Sinaitic, Paleo-NWS, Old Aramaic and Phoenician scripts, I think we can say the inventors of the Samaritan script knew a smattering of the paleo-script, were familiar with the square script, and improvised on the rest. Lastly, some of the Qumran scrolls have readings that incline somewhat toward Samaritan/Palestinian textual preferences, but none are written in the Samaritan script that I know of. In fact, I know of no copy of the Samaritan scriptures that has been independently dated to earlier than the 12th century AD. I’d love to know of validated earlier examples, not of “readings” but of actual scrolls with the Samaritan text type and script.

        • James Mace

          Brother Lawson,
          Thanks so much for your substantively informative and analytical replies! I’m saving your postings for further use!
          Blessings, James

          • Lawson Stone

            James you always do a good job of spotting the potentially wild generalization and asking for the evidence. I think I did over-state when I referred to fabrication and my “almost comically” crack was too much of a peanut-gallery play and not the most balanced statement. I’d edit the post and change it, but then nobody would know what we’re talking about here.
            Thanks for the question and for reading!

  • Mark Goode

    Lawson, great article. Now, for a technology geek observation: with respect to the “two-fer” test and the declaration that the Ten Words were a covenant, how do we authenticate Yahweh’s signature? Did he even sign the covenant? If not, it is not a binding contract.

    Moses’ representation of his encounter with Yahweh also lacks authentication. What we can authenticate (within the narrative) is that Moses ascended the mountain without tablets and returned with tablets that he claimed contained ten words (commandments) from Yahweh.

    From a larger perspective, the History Channel producers are being generous to even repeat Moses’ claims of an encounter with Yahweh. And as for experts? They could use an attorney and a information systems assurance authentication expert.

    And just for fun, you may recognize my name and think you know me. If so, show me your proof ;-)

    • Lawson Stone

      Mark,
      Of course I remember you from ATS days and hanging out with Fred Schmidt. Nice to hear from you.

      American law did not function in the Late Bronze Age, nor did their writing materials allow for signatures as ours does. But authentication of the parties was necessary, of course. The authentication of treaties in antiquity was via witnesses and the making of solemn vows calling upon the gods for curses, etc. The summoning of heaven and earth as witnesses in Deut. 30 and the elements of the blessings and curses such as we see in Exod. 23 and Deut. 27 are the ancient equivalent of the signature. The king’s seal in antiquity also authenticated a document, and the demand for each to possess a copy, which was to be read regularly, played a role as well.

      • Mark Goode

        Hi Lawson,

        I didn’t mean to infer that American law should apply to the issue at hand. Authentication was as important then (as you point out) as it is now. The reason for mentioning an attorney is that for a contracting to be binding, it needs authenticated signatures from the party and counter-party. Noah claims that God promised him that he would never destroy the earth again with a flood and his “signature” to that agreement was/is a rainbow . . . or it could be that Noah simply invented the covenant and offered as evidence the refraction of light through a moist atmosphere. How do we know? We don’t . . .

        The issue I believe needs attention is the inadequacy of the authentication mechanisms in the Bronze Age. Authentication really isn’t time or culturally dependent. It’s simply a means of verification. And it is crucial when someone claims to speak on behalf of God.

        Now, the authentication you offer as support for Moses would simply not pass muster today: “summoning heaven and earth” as witnesses is simply inadequate. The Islamic mullahs and other fundamentalists today use similar approaches but reasoned people object to them as insufficient, particularly when they are used to rationalize acts of violence and hatred. ANYONE can make that claim and you know better than me that false prophets during the Bronze Age routinely made representations that were based on similar if not identical appeals to authenticity, appeals that were simply unverifiable.

        The simple but vexing reality is that there were no other human witnesses to Moses’ alleged encounter with Yahweh. And all we have for authentication is Moses’ word. Nothing more and nothing less.

        Even more problematic is that we don’t know if the words ascribed to Moses were actually his . . . we have no tape recording, no videotape of an interview, and no authenticated hand written document. And even though these limitations in authentication are clearly artifacts of Bronze Age reality, 21st century teachers and preachers want their parishioners to accept as authenticated FACT that these things happened as reported. And that’s where I have a problem. Bronze Age authentication and 21st century authentication are not in the same class and that has a direct bearing on the weight one should give a Bronze Age claim.

        I can posit an explanation for the tablets that doesn’t require an encounter with Yahweh: Moses faced a leadership crisis. The narrative in the text makes it clear that the Israelites had lost confidence in him and the path he was taking them down (the wilderness to be specific). So, Moses may have done what many spiritual leaders do today (and have done for millennia): he left the unhappy group, retreated into a place of solitude, and returned with “a message from God.” In his case, these were two tablets that he claimed were a covenant with God. In that simple but bold act, Moses represented that he was speaking for God, had a special relationship with him . . . and thus reasserted the legitimacy of his leadership.

        But did Moses actually meet Yahweh? Was there a burning bush? Did Yahweh create the tablets? There is no independent, third party validation of those representations made by Moses. And that is where caution should enter into representations made by those who speak of this as an authenticated historical event; it is not. It is an ALLEGED historical event that lacks any form of third party authentication.

        That is why I think the History Channel is actually pandering to the American evangelical/fundamentalist market niche with its programming. The show’s producers studiously avoid this most fundamental problem of historicity but instead trot out a variety of “experts” who comment on things that you quite rightly point out are mistaken. It’s a programming sleight of hand.

        The big issue (“the elephant in the living room”) is should Moses’ alleged encounter with Yahweh even be treated as history but if the History Channel were to raise THAT issue, they would lose viewers, which is bad for ratings and business :-)

        And by the way, you recall meeting “a” Mark Goode at ATS who is friends with Fred Schmidt . . . but you’ve yet to provide a means of authenticating that “that” Mark Goode is the one who is writing this reply :-)

        Of course, you could “summon heaven and earth” but others might claim that like the Nigerian spammers you are just spoofing us :-D

        • Lawson Stone

          Mark
          You seem to me to be confusing two issues. What was authentication for the people in ancient times, and what authenticates this material to us. For the second question, I am not trying to prove any of this to you or anyone else. I’m just telling you what the historical record shows. This is how it worked for those people in the past, and we are reading the literary deposit of their activities. As to the first, the diplomatic chancellories of a half-dozen empires found the treaty authentication process they used to be wholly adequate for their needs. A treaty/covenant settled a 200 year border dispute between New Kingdom Egypt and the Hittites, the two super-powers of the Late Bronze Age. Multiple such treaties exist from antiquity and they insured international stability about as well if not even better than such instruments do today. Some of those ancient treaties kept the peace longer than the American legal system has even been in existence.
          On whether this should be treated as history, much hangs on whose definition of historiography you use. On ratings, believe me, the sexier and more popular position is really the skeptical one. Bart Ehrman and friends make a lot more money and get a lot more face-time on Cable than scholars who think the texts are faithful interpretations of the past. In case you haven’t noticed, the mass media is no friend to any orthodoxies except the revisionist kind.
          I think there are plenty of reasons to see in the narratives, songs, ritual reports and other ancient materials in Exodus substantial connections to real events of the times they narrate.
          And really…I am not going to a lawyer to tell me the definition of truth!

          • Mark Goode

            Lawson, I don’t think I’m confusing the issues but I am inferring something that may not be true. I assume that because you are an OT professor at ATS that you teach (and believe) that OT stories such as this one (Moses and the tablets) are true and as such, have some relevance to the lives of people in the 21st century. IF you believe that, then the issue of what was sufficient authentication to a Bronze Age citizen and what is sufficient to a 21st century citizen is very relevant.

            However, if you are simply commenting on the authentication modality of the Bronze Age citizen without reference to those of us living a couple of millennia later, then I stand corrected and agree that I have confused the issues.

            I agree that the question of historiography is relevant, in fact, central to my comments. And I think it is critical to any faith system that asserts that it is grounded in historical truth and reality.

            Much has been learned about truth and history since the Bronze Age and speaking for myself alone, I find those lessons invaluable in determining what I should trust and what I should not trust.

        • Lawson Stone

          One other point…I agree I think they are exploiting (not pandering) the evangelical audience, but the experts they’ve consulting are not a uniform group. All five that I checked up on are completely legitimate scholars with degrees from Harvard, Yale, Oxford etc. and solid publications. One is a protestant evangelical. One is a Jewish scholar who actually teaches NT and Christian origins. One is a Roman Catholic professor of Church History who has published a series of works claiming that the concept of a persecuted church in antiquity is simply early orthodox propaganda and myth-making. Three of the five were women. So I don’t think you’ll find the scholars consulted deficient in training or monolithic in ideology. None has a degree in OT studies, which was my concern.

          • Mark Goode

            Hmmm. I’d give the History Channel a call ;-) You’ve identified an important oversight that a producer may want to remedy.

        • Lawson Stone

          Mark
          Actually one last comment. Though I am not a post-modern, I still have to chuckle that somehow you think a “third party” authentication will somehow insure we have “FACTS.” I believe there are facts, but facts in the courtroom, in human relationships, in the past, and even facts before our very eyes have a way of being more slippery and elusive. Cartesian certainty, even Baconian certainty, heck, even Derridaian certainty isn’t going to ever be sufficient to compel anyone to assent to the faith. I believe reason and historical discourse have a role to play, but I never expect faith to be the result of someone demonstrating the Fact that God spoke to Moses in the burning bush. But I can show that to believe such is not to be unreasonable and is not on par to believing in patent nonsense.

          • Mark Goode

            Lawson,

            On this point, we diverge. For me, facts matter, truth matters, and history matters. And I probably set the bar higher than you for the reason that I am not satisfied to embrace a faith system that is “not unreasonable or on par with believing in patent nonsense,” something, by the way, that is subject to rational debate.

            Let me explain further. You may recall a chapel message delivered at Asbury College by a student, RT Knight, a recovering drug addict and former narcotics dealer from NYC. He was working three jobs to put himself through college and one of these required him to move large slabs of beef around in a butcher shop. One day, he lifted too much weight and injured his back. I don’t remember whether he compressed a disk or cracked a vertebrae but it was serious enough to require hospitalization and x-rays pointed to a specific injury. The therapeutic regime was bed rest accompanied by pain meds. Because the pain meds were narcotic, he refused hospitalization and the meds and went home. To ease the pain, he crawled from his bed to soak in his bathtub filled with hot water.

            A few days after his injury, a fellow student showed up at his door and said, “God told me to come and pray for you.” So, RT let him in. The student knelt by the bedside, prayed for RT, and said, “God has healed you.” The student then left.

            RT said that he stood up in the tub and the pain that had afflicted him had disappeared. He could move his back with total freedom. Not believing that all was healed, he waited till his wife returned home and when she approached him, he jumped up, embraced her, and danced around the room, naked (a scandalous disclosure in chapel).

            RT then went to visit his doctor to show him that “God had healed him.” According to RT, the doctor grew angry and said (growled), “I can’t explain what happened to you but you are better.”

            Now, here is a piece of history that can be authenticated. We know that RT was injured: the x-rays prove it. We know that he was bed ridden and in pain. And we know that following the prayer of the student, his pain disappeared and his back was restored to normal. Those are facts and they can be verified by disinterested third parties. Though this event occurred in the late 20th century, the authentication mode is still valid today.

            What we cannot authenticate is the agent of change. Was it “natural healing?” Was it the hot water and rest? Or was it some miracle, an intervention by God? We don’t know for sure.

            RT concluded that the agent of change was God and that is his choice to trust (put his faith in) that explanation. But RT’s story is miles ahead of Moses and the tablets because we can authenticate the events that surround RT’s injury and his recovery.

            Decades ago an eye witness was sufficient to put a man in prison for life on the allegation of rape. Today, some of these imprisoned men are being freed because DNA tests can authenticate that they are innocent. This mode of scientific authentication leads to FACTS which have direct legal consequences: the men are freed. And it is both certain and true. Far ahead of anything in the Bronze Age.

            A final point: certainty and reason are neurological processes that exist in different parts of the brain and FUNCTION INDEPENDENTLY. I was brought up to believe that if it could be proven that “2+2=4″, then being certain about that conclusion flowed from the logic of the reasoned argument.

            It turns out that the feeling and conviction of certainty is a neurological function that is unrelated to higher order reasoning. In his book, “On Being Certain” (http://www.amazon.com/Being-Certain-Believing-Right-Youre/dp/B008SLU5Z8/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1363051636&sr=1-1&keywords=on+being+certain), the neurologist Robert Burton explains how we can be absolutely certain that something is true or that something is real or that something happened . . . regardless of the facts or evidence.

            Given this, I am cautious about what I assert to be certainly true, particularly when I seek to tie it to a “causal chain” that begins in a Bronze Age story and ends with me committing my life to a set of values or beliefs. I may feel certain about my faith and convictions but as Burton points out, the science shows that you can be both certain and wrong.

        • Lawson Stone

          Mark
          I have to reply here because WordPress won’t allow any further indents.
          First I want to simply dismiss a couple points. First, you are not the standard of who takes facts and truth seriously. The fact that I disagree with you, see the way faith interacts with historical claims differently from you, does not mean I have a lower value on facts or truth. It just means the viewpoint you expressed is not the only one out there, not the only valid one.
          Second, your insinuation about my employment at Asbury somehow being in conflict with my views again shows you must be thinking of your own particular view of Asbury in the 1970′s, which might not have been completely fair even then. That I believe the Biblical narrative, where and to the degree that it aspires to present historical narrative, does so with integrity, is not to say I have to produce the argument at every point, on your demand, to meet your requirements of what you think a historically faithful document has to look like. .
          As for the review, I was speaking from the standpoint of a historian of antiquity, plain and simple. I wasn’t criticizing the movie for its theology and I actually was not, in that discrete post, addressing the contemporary relevance of the Bible. THe question of what the texts meant in their historical setting and how they function for us today are related, but far from identical, and they can be discussed in relative (not ultimate) separation. I was just saying they missed important details that are either in the bible itself, and whether or not true, still have to be part of the re-presentation onscreen if that claims (as they did) to be faithful to the text. I don’t fault them for engaging or not engaging the “whether the Bible is true” question. They’re amateurs and they’d never get it right so I’m glad they’ve just stuck to presenting the story, though I do think they have done it wrongly at important points.
          Also, you basically are trying to drive me into the all-or-nothing argument, but that’s your problem, not mine. I’m not an all-or-nothing person, and even if I were, I am not the one the all-or-nothing finally depends on. My faith does not depend on being able to prove God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. On your model, nothing that ever happened to anyone while alone could ever be believed because there is no third-party attestation.
          And even that “third party attestation” is pretty meaningless. Your story from college about the back-healing, I could just say I don’t believe you. I consider you an unreliable witness. You could say look at the lab work, the X-rays. On that model, you can’t believe anything reported prior to the invention of modern information storage and retrieval…but wait…those very technologies make possible an almost seamless falsification of the very data you’d use to prove the case. So I don’t believe in your healed back story because I didn’t see it. And therefore I don’t believe anything you say because after all, I’ve not seen or heard from you in decades and for all I know you’re writing from a mental hospital or prison where you are deluded.
          I’d also point out that faith is more than assent and Christianity is more than arguing about the burning bush or Moses and the tablets. There is a personal God who interacts with humans, reveals himself through the scriptures, is present in the gathered body, and manifested in the church’s sacramental life which is extended through the church’s service in the world. All this, like an intimate, committed human relationship, involves discrete facts and lots of information, but it also involves intuitions, intimacies of mind and heart, the interplay between inner and out life, including the body. Any one of those can be abstracted, isolated and handled reductionistic ally, like the sad remark about certainty and brain chemistry. But the resulting abstraction and reduction would be dead wrong. They would not correspond to any actual reality in the existing relationship. Faith functions in a rich interactive system that even goes beyond the individual.
          I’m quite confident that not a word I’ve written here will make a particle of difference in your thinking, but I’ve enjoyed the conversation and wish you the very best.

          • Mark Goode

            Lawson,

            Thank you for your reply. Perhaps a reset of some of the discussion might be helpful because I can tell that I have not communicated clearly and have left some impressions that I would like to correct.

            To begin with, you are under no obligation to respond to me. I appreciate the fact that you take the time to respond to my comments but certainly I do not expect you to do so.

            Second, if I have left you with the impression that I am in any way the standard bearer of truth, fact, or authentication, then I apologize. My principal area of study in seminary was epistemology and though my professional career has taken me far from the halls of ecclesiology and theology, the issues of “how do we know anything” and “how do we know what is true” have a direct, day to day bearing on my work as a management and technology consultant to my Department of Defense and private sector clients.

            And, one area of professional specialization, information assurance, in which I was awarded a patent, have developed a security product certified by the National Security Agency, and continue to advise government clients turns to a large degree on the issues associated with “ground truth” (a CIA term of art), degrees of certainty, judgment, and authentication of sources, facts, and events. So these are issues that are key to my professional life, one very different than what I imagined when I last roamed the halls of ATS 35 years ago. Nonetheless, life has an odd way of weaving our past into our present.

            Third, though Emerson said that “the pursuit of consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (one of Bob Lyon’s favorite quotations), I do look for harmony or consistency between what people say, believe, and do. My remarks about the potential intersection of your teaching role at Asbury and your beliefs about historicity weren’t meant to be insulting but were meant to better understand the relationship between what you teach and how you live.

            About twenty years ago in my own faith journey, I discovered that I was living a rather disconnected life: saying and teaching one thing in my work as a church teacher while actually living and professionally analyzing/processing information in a manner that contradicted the epistemology of my faith tradition. They were like two silos and the dissonance between the two ultimately drove me to view both of the worlds differently. I have met others that have experienced the same thing and it has led them in a direction that has been eye opening and edifying. But that is simply my story and my journey; it is not better or worse than anyone else’s.

            Fourth, your review did not address at all the issues I have raised; those were my comments interjected into the dialogue. Had I known that they would have made you uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have mentioned the issues. It’s just that after reading your critique, I couldn’t help but comment on what I felt were some higher order problems/issues . . . but that has apparently hijacked the thread and that was not my intent. I apologize.

            With all due respect, I am not trying “to drive you into an all or nothing argument.” Far from it. There is extraordinary subtlety in matters of truth, fact, and history and brilliant, well informed men and women (hundreds of thousand of whom are employed by US taxpayers and who work for the three letter intelligence agencies) spend their lives seeking to dimension degrees of fact, truth, and history as the basis for national security policy, policies which have led in the past decade to trillions of dollars in military expenses, thousands of lives lost, tens of thousands of soldiers injured, and countless others marred with lifelong physical and mental disabilities.

            And in the case of the war in Iraq it all turned on an apparently simple and, as President Bush claimed, verifiable fact: Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and therefore, we should go to war. Only it wasn’t a fact, it wasn’t verified, and though great faith was placed in this assertion of fact, it turned out to be verifiably false.

            Cheney later argued that the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were ever found was irrelevant; Hussein was a “bad actor” and needed to be dealt with. Cheney asserted that the critics of the war were reductionists who lost sight of the bigger picture. But Cheney lacks the integrity to admit he was in error. Verifiable truth matters, if not in religion, certainly in matters of public policy.

            Your rejoinder to my story of the chapel message discloses the personal epistemological challenge we all face: whom do we believe and why should we trust them or their story. In fact, RT’s message is available on audio tape (remember those?) and we could track him down for an interview. Would that convince you? I don’t know. But the standard of authentication is higher than the story of Moses and the burning bush.

            Are private disclosures of personal experiences that cannot be verified untrustworthy? Not necessarily. But I do grow uncomfortable building a business, government policy, or faith system on the representations of one man (or woman) whose assertions of private conversations with God are to be the basis for action and life. Joseph Smith was a master at this form of epistemological “spinning” and the Mormon Church stands as a shining example of a faith system constructed on un unverifiable set of claims; in fact, some of the claims are verifiably false but deemed irrelevant by the Mormon church.

            My discussion about the
            neurology of certainty isn’t reductionistic at all! We are biological beings and the thing we call “the mind” appears to largely be a manifestation of electrical activities that occur at a biochemical level in our brain. I don’t know if ATS has courses on counseling people with substance abuse problems but if so I can assure you that the “brain-mind” issue stands at the core of understanding addictive diseases and how they can and should be treated. There are sound scientific and neurological reasons why “90 meetings in 90 days” actually helps an addict break the addictive cycle. That’s not reductionism; that’s verifiable scientific fact.

            You make a clear confessional statement when you write: “There is a personal God who interacts with humans, reveals himself through the scriptures, is present in the gathered body, and manifested in the church’s sacramental life which is extended through the church’s service in the world. All this, like an intimate, committed human relationship, involves discrete facts and lots of information, but it also involves intuitions, intimacies of mind and heart, the interplay between inner and out life, including the body.”

            Similar heart felt, sincerely believed statements of belief are made by persons of many different faiths — all with equal conviction and certainty. Christianity’s claim to be a proprietary (and exclusive) channel of God’s grace is matched by similar claims by Orthodox Jews and Muslims. Add to that the representations made by the adherents of hundreds of others of faith systems and the world is awash with firmly held beliefs, largely immune to the challenges of authentication, verification, fact, truth, or history. Could the neurology of certainty explain this? It might . . .

            Yet I take nothing away from any of these people for believing as they do or living as they feel led. I certainly don’t have any final answers to those most important questions but I respect your (and their) right to claim that you (and they) do. Thankfully, in this country, we enjoy the privilege of dissent, disagreement, and no compulsion to conform to an official religious creed.

            Finally, I appreciate your candid admission that you actually don’t know where I’m writing from – a mental hospital or prison, deluded in either place. I don’t think I’m deluded but then no deluded person every does. Actually, I’m sitting on my couch downstairs, drinking a glass of Pinot Grigio, (in a water glass) and typing away on my laptop. But then it would be reasonable for you to say, “Prove it!” and if you did, well, I’d say you’ve taken up the authentication challenge ;-) And now that we’re friends on Facebook, I’ll post a photo of myself taken by my laptop. Absolute proof that I’m not in prison or a psych ward? No. But more than just a bald assertion in the text.

            Thanks again for the discussion. I appreciate your candor and hope that you accept my apologies where I have inadvertently offended you or misrepresented your points of view.

            Kind regards,

            Mark

        • Lawson Stone

          Mark
          Thanks for your extended reply. I really think we simply are at an irreconcilable difference of viewpoint. First you suggested lawyers as the standard of truth. Now you suggest government work. This is not getting better ;-)
          And you continue to talk as though I’m in some kind of denial or avoiding reality at some point. I probably am, but not on the issue of faith and history, or faith and truth. I’m doing my best. Your solution is how I used to think. I found it wholly inadequate when applied to the things in my life that mattered most. You are basically asking us to revert to a science-decides-all model for truth, and I find that inadequate on every level when applied to relationships, temporal and eternal. This reduction to all arenas of life to one, the courtroom or the lab, is a poor substitute for “consistency.” It allows people to claim they are being consistent when in fact they are being merely rigid. I reject Emerson’s comment, but I do find that more than mere consistency, I strive for constancy of character. But I do not expect the same intellectual moves to solve problems in one area the same as they do in others. It’s like hearing a classical musician try to play jazz. Lots of skill, but in the end, kinda sad.
          In the realm of historical study, we are always and only given relative probabilities. No historical treatment of any topic can yield 100% certainty. But the Bible, oddly enough, calls us to faith, and to a faith, that traffics in the fragile and disputable phenomena of history. It’s not naive on that point, but is fully aware of the difficulties of talking with certainty about events in the past. But it’s the very nature of biblical faith that you can walk away from it and tell yourself, “I’m just being reasonable.” There is no amount of evidence that could be accumulated on any historical point that, *taken alone* in a purely empiricist-type transaction, would be “worth” gambling your life on. But if God is already working in someone’s life, already drawing them away from their self-defined world and toward their Creator, they will find the Bible’s historical content fully adequate. I don’t know why Christianity has structured itself so that “I believe in God” also involves believing in Pontius Pilate, but that’s the nature of the thing. Your suggestion no doubt would be “ergo, Christianity is not worthy of faith.” And that’s exactly how Christianity is structured, and yes, you are fully entitled to say that, and fully entitled to walk away.
          Once when God spoke from heaven to Jesus, in full hearing of the crowd who so desperately wanted “a sign,” and even then some say “Oh, it just thundered.”

  • http://continuumofgrace.wordpress.com Seth Asher

    Dr. Stone, I’m greatly appreciating the research you’re bringing to the table in your comments on the series. Thanks for writing these, and keep ‘em coming!