Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Stark crunches Copan

Oh man, a book-length three hundred and seven page book review! As announced on Religion at the Margins, here is the ultimate rebuttal to Paul Copan's cosy and creative contextualising of the Canaanite genocide (links below). And nobody could bring the passion to the task that Thom Stark does. This guy is like a rottweiler, and while I'm no fan of canine rottweilers, a Canaanite rottweiler is another matter entirely.

In case you missed previous episodes, Copan is a scholar who thinks the nasty genocide stuff in the Old Testament is much overstated. Yahweh is no moral monster, because, um, well, who knows... Maybe because it'd upset the theological, doctrinal and devotional applecart. The task at hand then is to explain away the indefensible. Copan is, on this matter, of the same view as New Zealand Reformed apologist Matthew Flannagan. The task restated, dear reader, is to put your mind at rest, and to salve your tender conscience lest it be disturbed by the blood and screams of dying children murdered at the command of God.

Thom is the author of the brilliant The Human Faces of God, which while coming from a committed Christian perspective, refuses to make excuses for the texts of terror. It is an honest eyeballing of the evidence. An overview has been presented here before. The review, like the book, is approachable by an interested non-specialist, so while the length may be formidable, the content is anything but. Here's Thom's opening paragraph.
I am a Christian. Sure, not by fundamentalists’ standards, but I’m a Christian nonetheless. I say this at the outset because I don’t want my intentions to be misunderstood. In critiquing Paul Copan’s apologetic defenses of our frequently morally problematic Bible, my aim is not to turn anybody away from the Christian faith. In fact, I am critical of apologetic attempts to sweep the Bible’s horror texts under the rug precisely because I believe such efforts are damaging to the church and to Christian theology. After having read and critiqued Paul Copan’s latest apologetic effort, I am obliged to say that I can only recommend this book to atheists who are looking for a good book to give to their Christian friends to show them what’s wrong with Christianity.


Anyone who has been seduced by the arguments presented by the genocide deniers badly needs to download Stark's review. If you have an eReader that handles PDFs, that could be a nifty way to engage with this amazing review.

Thom's brief introduction on Religion at the Margins.
The Review in PDF (all 307 pages).


  1. By your definition or Stark's, was Jesus implicitly a "genocide denier" because He did not warn His follows against completely trusting the writings of Moses?

  2. Weeeeeell, that assumes Jesus was of the view that the "writings of Moses" were completely trustworthy. How do you mesh that with "you have heard it said that... but I say to you..."?

  3. In quote of Jesus, He was taking issues with the Pharisees' interpretation of Moses - not with Moses. This is all the more clear when you read those words in context, which He preceded with "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law of the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill."

  4. BLJ (a.k.a. Mike G?)
    Problem with that Mike, when Matthew's Jesus refers to "Moses" he quotes scripture - not an interpretation. To say otherwise is, well, an interpretation itself. I'm sure the Pharisees had an interpretation, and it's obvious you do too, but that's not the point.

  5. Gavin,

    (Yes, BLJ = MG)

    I'm not able to follow your logic. Please elaborate on how you see Jesus taking issue with Moses.

    If one takes the gospels at face value (that is, does not pick and choose which verses to consider authentic or historical) you cannot help but conclude that Jesus built His teaching and ministry on the foundation which Moses had laid. Did he take Moses' teaching to a whole new level? Absolutely, but that's a far cry from saying He considered the writings of Moses as untrustworthy as Stark would have us do.

  6. Deal with the text Mike. Does Jesus quote "Moses" or does he quote an interpretation of Moses? Read it again in Matthew 5.

  7. Gavin,

    Jesus quotes Moses, then 1) refutes pharisaical interpretations of Moses, and 2) intensifies all of Moses' commands by making them apply to thought life as well as outright deeds - all in one breath.

    Therefore, far from devaluing Moses, Jesus gave Moses' words a whole new life and meaning. This what He meant by preceding this section with "I did not come to abolish [Moses] but to fulfill."

    It sounds like you and Stark are saying Jesus did come to abolish Moses. I'm going to have to stick with Jesus and Moses on this point.

  8. Mike, why do you assume I have the same view as Thom Stark on this passage. While I clearly agree with his position on the texts of terror, I'm sure he'd disagee with a lot I write, and vice versa.

    Second (and for the last time) read the text. Try this one for size:

    33 "Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

    It's pretty clear cut, isn't it? This isn't just extending or amplifying a law while leaving it intact.

    All of this isn't to say that Jesus didn't honour the Mosaic code, just that Matthew - who is big on the law - records Jesus as confronting that code here in Matthew 5. "Completely trusting the writings of Moses"? Those are the words you began this exchange with. Apparently not without a bucketful of qualification and a truckload of interpretation.

    While you keep dragging red herrings across the path no further conversation is really possible.

  9. "It sounds like you and Stark are saying Jesus did come to abolish Moses."

    Well, Gantt had read the review he'd know that I argue precisely the opposite.