Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority, Jonathan Morrow
Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God, Paul Copan and Matt Flanagan
Every theological discussion between believers and nonbelievers eventually comes to the same impasse: The point at which all arguments and evidence have been exhausted and one must render a verdict. Here, the believers appeal to faith, while the nonbelievers draw conclusions based on the empirical evidence.
If there’s a bridge between these banks, I’ve yet to find it.
But I’m hopeful, and I recently read two apologetics in pursuit of fresh insights and new perspectives. This is what I found.
Jonathan Morrow—a Christian author and founder of the nonprofit Think Christianly—functions as something of a biblical ombudsman in his new book, Questioning the Bible. This is an admittedly ambitious task, and at the top, I’d like to commend Morrow on the effort. His narrative is earnest and thoughtful, even if his arguments are flawed, and whatever your preconceived notions, you will find something challenging in this book.
In particular, I appreciate the spirit of open-mindedness in the early-going.
“Real Christians aren’t supposed to doubt, are they? Unfortunately this is a common misunderstanding in many churches, and tragically many young Christians are growing up without a safe place to ask the tough questions and wrestle with their doubts.”
Morrow’s plan is to meet doubt on its own terms, and defend the Bible through logic rather than faith. It’s a bold plan.
Unfortunately, the execution is weak.
The first flaw is that Morrow uses the Bible as source material to confirm the legitimacy of, well, the Bible. This is circular logic, despite the author’s denials.
“In summary, if you can get Moses, Jesus, and Paul saying essentially the same thing, then I think you can consider this question settled: biblical faith is not opposed to reason and evidence.”
Well, it was already understood that Moses, Jesus and Paul were pretty much playing for the same team. The corroboration of their testimony is to be expected.
Morrow undermines his arguments with glaring contradictions. One of the biggest concerns the writing of the Gospels. Scholars date their writing to somewhere between the 60s and the 90s—three decades or more following the crucifixion of Jesus—and Christian scholars generally assign a timeline beginning in the 50s. Either way, why the delay? The significance of this time gap is that, considering the unreliability of memory and eyewitness accounts, it calls into question whether we can treat the Gospels as historical fact.
Morrow handles this fairly well at first: “Remember that this was an oral culture and most people in the ancient world could not read.”
OK, that makes sense. For emphasis, Morrow writes, “We have established what the earliest Christians believed about Jesus. But why think any of this should be written down and collected in a predominantly oral culture and have the title ‘scripture’ attached to it?”
In the very next chapter, only 10 pages later, in fact, this changes. Morrow argues that we can trust the validity of biblical documents because (emphasis in the original text) “the earliest Christians understood that covenants in the ancient world were written documents and believed Jesus the Messiah had inaugurated the New Covenant.”
(Insert sound of needle scratching across record.)
Morrow writes, “…it would be only natural and even expected that the apostles write down the New Covenant teachings from God through Jesus the Messiah. The Hebrew Scriptures reveal many examples of God’s revealed redemptive activity needing to be written down for future generations to learn from or be reminded of.”
One would think a question or two about the savior’s murder and resurrection might be on the test, and per Jewish tradition, it was expected that Christ’s followers would have etched it in papyrus.
So why didn’t the apostles take notes? Why was it left to others to write the New Testament? Morrow fails to acknowledge these obvious questions and doesn’t seem to recognize (or think his target audience will notice) the contradiction.
To summarize: In response to challenges that the Gospels are unreliable because they were written years after the events they describe and were not written by the people who were there, Morrow’s defense is that it was an oral culture: “…why think any of this should be written down… and have the title ‘scripture’ attached to it?”
Then, in arguing for the Gospels’ authority, he writes that Christ’s followers would have “expected” the apostles to write it all down, as was standard operating procedure with covenants.
Yet the apostles didn’t do this.
Morrow’s argument is limping at this point, and he stumbles into the standard pitfalls of the Cosmological Argument and Intelligent Design. Morrow claims there is “significant scientific evidence that undermines the plausibility of Darwinian evolution and points toward Intelligent Design”—yet doesn’t cite any of this “significant scientific evidence.”
Up to this point, Morrow has given us an interesting book—flawed, certainly, but interesting—and in the grand scheme is harmless. I would have given Questioning the Bible a more positive review had he maintained this tone.
Then in a chapter titled “Is the Bible Sexist, Racist, Homophobic, and Genocidal?”, Morrow takes the offensive—emphasis on offensive—in defense of the Bible’s most indefensible passages.
First up: the Bible’s approval of slave-keeping. In a shocking bit of spin-doctoring, Morrow states that “Christianity did not invent slavery,” and, well, everybody else was doing it. Then he attempts to qualify the different varieties of bondage: “The two biggest causes of slavery in the ancient world were war and poverty, not skin color.”
I did a spit-take when I read that. Slavery comes in many forms (race-based slave trading, sex trafficking, exploitation of migrant workers, etc.), but the end result is the same: It’s forcing another person to labor against their will for your benefit. Whatever the motivation of the oppressor (racial or not), Morrow can’t sugar-coat the Bible’s endorsement of the ownership and forced labor of another human being.
Unless Christianity had a good reason to tolerate slavery? “The immediate abolition of slavery would have created serious cultural problems,” Morrow writes. Sure, but then he audaciously quotes John Mark Reynolds—an academic officer at Houston Baptist University—that abolishing slavery “could have been a worse evil” than slavery itself.
Uh, anyone else getting uncomfortable?
So twisted is Morrow’s utilitarian logic that slavery becomes a vehicle of economic and social benefit, in which the most impoverished of God’s creations “typically became slaves to provide sustenance,” much like the poor in modern America: “If we haven’t solved poverty in the most prosperous country the world has ever seen, then how much more challenging would war and poverty be in a severely under-resourced community.”
True, but we’re not talking about the existence of poverty or the relationship of poverty and exploitation. We’re discussing the Bible’s green light on slavery.
“Jesus came to set captives free, restore, heal and transform—that is the good news of the kingdom of God,” Morrow writes.
Yet, slavery continued.
If that’s the good news, I’ve got some better news: The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
That sentence accomplished what apparently Jesus couldn’t or wouldn’t do.
For biblical contrast, try Ephesians 6:5: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”
Back to the Constitution. Morrow claims that “Atheism did not lay the groundwork for inherent human dignity and equality; it borrows that from a Judeo-Christian worldview. If you remove God from the equation, you also remove inherent human dignity and equality.”
Yet, it was a secular document that actually freed American slaves—and their liberation didn’t result in the “evil” societal collapse Reynolds warned us of. (I do, however, want to be clear in separating Reynolds’ comments from Morrow’s beliefs. I certainly don’t think Morrow prefers slavery to abolition, but rather that he’s made a poor choice in selecting sources to make his point.)
Next, Morrow takes on genocide, particularly Deuteronomy 20:16-18 (in which God advises his followers to “save alive nothing that breathes” and completely destroy the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites).
Once again, Morrow utilizes semantic chicanery. First, he gives God a pass, since it was an isolated event that was “unique, geographically and temporally limited, and not to be repeated.” He argues that Canaanites, practitioners of idolatry, had it coming, since “God had given them 430 years to change their ways.”
Then, Morrow, as he tried with slavery, attempts to change the definition of genocide: “While Israel carried out this judgment against a specific people… their actions were not motivated by racial superiority or hatred. Therefore the language of ethnic cleansing and genocide is inaccurate. Idolatry, not ethnicity, is the issue here.”
Dude, that’s still genocide, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” How exactly does killing all the Canaanites not qualify? By blaming it on idolatry?
Finally, in an act of desperation, Morrow attempts to rationalize or reinterpret God’s instructions by claiming that “rather than the total destruction of everything that breathes, the main targets were the key military centers.” He theorizes that most of the women and children in the city probably escaped unharmed.
This rose-colored revisionism—suggesting that God’s commandment to “save alive nothing that breathes” didn’t include women and children—undermines Morrow’s claims elsewhere in the book that the Bible is inerrant.
Or is it only inerrant when it’s convenient?
For some reason, biblical literalism does apply when it comes to homosexuality. Morrow takes the view that being gay isn’t the worst sin—it’s just a sin, and hey, we’re all sinners. (How generous of the author to grant that gay people aren’t as bad as suicide bombers.) Better yet, “there are plenty of people who have struggled with and overcome same-sex attraction. And as long as at least one has ‘changed’ then change is at least possible for those who struggle with same-sex attraction.”
Morrow writes, “They have hope” in the form of honoring God through celibacy or heterosexual marriage, if not outright change.
Gee, that is good news! I’ll be sure to pass on to all of my sinful gay friends that Morrow has gifted them with a bright future of celibacy and sham marriages!
Next we come to the sexist parts of the Bible. How does Morrow justify these? I won’t waste any ammo on this one. Morrow has enough bullets to shoot himself in the foot once again.
I’ll grant him this: I respect Morrow’s bravery in attempting to defend the Bible’s most unsavory parts. It’s not easy, and he doesn’t shrink from the challenge. But his semantic maneuvering is inadequate to convince any rational reader.
I love philosophy and religious discussion, and at times, Morrow proves himself capable of both. He begins the book with an open, inquisitive and welcoming voice, but as his arguments unravel, his thinking becomes less logical and his tone more troubled and intolerant.
I don’t believe that Morrow is ill-natured or ill-intended, but that he overreaches in his attempt to defend everything in the Bible with logic. It’s an ambitious effort, but one that, not surprisingly, fails in its mission.
Likewise, apologists Paul Copan and Matt Flanagan fail to offer fresh insights on biblical interpretation in Did God Command Genocide?. Their task seems less daunting than Morrow’s, as they are only addressing the passages concerning genocide rather than the entire book.
But where Morrow embarks on an earnest intellectual inquiry, Copan and Flanagan have clearly put their conclusions ahead of their questions. The result is a scriptural shell game attempting to exonerate the almighty from the more unseemly bits of his book.
Again, we’re dealing with God’s directive to “completely destroy” those pesky Canaanites. In their attempt to gloss over this troubling fact, Copan and Flanagan turn to WIlliam Lane Craig’s argument of appropriation, which suggests that God does not necessarily endorse everything that’s in the Bible. “That is, God is not always affirming what the human author affirms.”
Sooo, which parts of the Bible are legit and which are “jk”?
The authors come to curious conclusions, but their flawed arguments reveal it to be wish fulfillment rather than critical thinking. Like Morrow, it can be summarized as the Bible is the word of God when denouncing homosexuality, but human interpretation when ordering the deaths of women and children.
When God’s words are inconvenient, Copan and Flanagan argue that there is a “textual God,” and that his words “have nothing to do with God’s character, who is nonviolent and loving.” But our basis for understanding that God is “nonviolent and loving” is from God’s words, certainly not from his alleged creations. Why is it that we are to believe God’s claims in some places but not others? And how do Copan and Flanagan know which is which?
Of course, they’ll argue that the answer is in this book, but nothing in its pages would stand up to academic scrutiny.
The authors even admit that biblical texts have been misused for ill purposes. My question to the authors: How could a perfect being provide imperfect or incoherent instructions? And if there were misunderstandings resulting in violence and oppression, wouldn’t a “nonviolent and loving” being want to clarify what they meant?
In defending their position, Copan and Flanagan fling about every argument they can think of, hoping something will stick. They argue that God didn’t command us to “slaughter” the Canaanites, only Joshua. And it’s not as if God was writing a blank check: Israel was forbidden from attacking other nations—only the Canaanites.
I’m sorry to have to break it to the authors, but that’s still genocide.
So which is it? Did God not command genocide? Did he only say it was OK for Joshua? Is he cool with mass murder, but only if the victims are Canaanites? Clearly, Copan and Flanagan have some more work to do. You can’t argue that God didn’t command genocide by admitting that God commanded genocide, but putting qualifications on it.
Another sad argument is that the Canaanites were sinners. Israel wasn’t allowed to attack them until they scoffed at the laws of God without repent. Those sins? Just some good old-fashioned incest, bestiality, child sacrifice and, of course, homosexuality.
Ah, there’s the old chestnut of prejudiced wingnuts: homosexuality is on par with incest, bestiality and child sacrifice. And apparently, according to the authors, God meant what he said about homosexuality, but not genocide.
I’d still like to know who their Deepthroat is. Who is the inside source providing them these brilliant insights?
And like Morrow, they fall back on semantic gymnastics: Since the Canaanites were slaughtered for their disobedience, not their ethnicity, it’s not technically genocide.
The authors should be ashamed of themselves for making such a cowardly rationalization. This is the same sort of logic that allows people to gun down cartoonists for perceived blasphemy. Killing people will send you to hell, but killing certain people will get you paradise.
When rationalization fails, the authors turn to qualification. You didn’t take that “totally destroy” command for realsies? Oh, you took that literally? No, what God meant by “totally destroy” was “drive out.” Like, LOL.
Bill Clinton gave more convincing testimony to Kenneth Starr.
And to add insult to inanity, the authors again turn to Craig (for some reason), who argues that if the Canaanites had simply abandoned their city, they wouldn’t have been killed. “There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples.”
So, it’s the fault of the vanquished. All they had to do was surrender their land, possessions and become willfully homeless and they would’ve been spared. The nerve of those Canaanites. They were clearly just asking for it.
I could go on, but it’s not worth dignifying Copan and Flanagan’s “argument.” Rather than supporting their thesis, the authors merely provide justification for horrific religious violence.
In both books, we inevitably come to the impasse of faith versus empirical evidence, and neither of them can bridge the divide between believers and nonbelievers. To his credit, Morrow raises some interesting questions and makes some good points along the way. Agree or disagree, I recommend giving Questioning the Bible a read. But despite his earnest effort, at the end we’re still standing on opposite banks.