Contemporary Bible critics are generating heaps of online and other discussion with their claims: Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene The early church doctored the Canon because of political pressures. The Canon was really information control; a cover-up. The central figure of Christianity was a fabricated myth, based on repeating themes in Pagan religions. The problem with these claims is that most of them are exaggerated, misrepresentations of actual history or complete fabrications. They often rely heavily on the genetic fallacy, dismissing conservative scholarship on the topic simply because it was authored by conservatives. Bart Ehrman, himself a former Christian, discusses part of this issue in his 2012 article in the Huffington Post, which you can find here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-d-ehrman/did-jesus-exist_b_1349544.html More recently, Huffington published an article titled, “Three Answers to Good and Evil That Were Cut From the Bible” by Dr. Joel Hoffman. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-joel-hoffman/three-answers-to-good-and_b_5748286.html
Hoffman’s work falls neatly into the category of sensational “click-bait misinformation described above. Like Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code”, the piece presumes from the start that the Bible is flawed. The difference between Hoffman’s work and Brown’s is that Hoffman’s pretends to be scholarly commentary, while Brown doesn’t hide the fact that he writes fiction. Dr. Hoffman’s article is academically and theologically disappointing for three reasons.
First, he demonstrates either a willful obscuring or a fundamental ignorance of the meaning of Deuteronomy. Hoffman attempts to portray the Pentateuchal sermon as a meta narrative explanation on suffering, while it is obviously a legal “suzerainty” covenant, similar to others in its day. The covenant agreement in Deuteronomy applied to the ancient Hebrews, whom God had chosen for himself and delivered from Egypt. It wasn’t a set of universal axioms, as Hoffman claims. Simply put, Deuteronomy was a set of promises between two parties (the Israelites and God) and those two parties alone.
Second, Hoffman doesn’t even attempt to address the conservative position on Canon, but presents his case as though any ancient writing that one might fancy has an equal footing with the traditional Canon. This is a typical maneuver for skeptical religious scholars of late, as well as many in the New Atheist school: they either ignore, insult or mischaracterize conservative scholarship without actually addressing it. Admittedly, Hoffman’s tone is not at all caustic toward conventional Christian thinking, except in the fact that he assumes from the start that we have been wrong all along, and never shows us why. It’s an arrogant assumption, which essentially says, Conventional Christian thinking on the Canon is wrong. Why? I don’t have to explain, it just is.
Perhaps Hoffman would resort to the genetic fallacy? The Canon is wrong because the early Church had a hand in its formation. Well, he doesn’t explicitly state that, so it becomes difficult to follow his reasoning without reading between the lines. Like this one, concerning the Book of Enoch: “Written before the Book of Daniel and quoted in the Book of Jude, Enoch was amongst the most beloved and popular writings in antiquity, but it was whitewashed from mainstream religion in the first millennium AD.” That sentence is a prime example of the subtle undermining of two hundred or more years of conservative scholarship on the Canon. Let’s briefly dissect three different items:
One. “Written before the Book of Daniel…” Is there a consensus on the dating of Enoch? What about Daniel? What Hoffman is not telling his readers is that the entire premise of liberal vs. conservative scholarship hinges on the dates when the books were authored. Earlier dates have been the official position of the church since the church fathers, some of whom personally knew the authors, first wrote about scripture. Their position was only questioned during the time of the enlightenment: nearly two millenia after the books were actually written. How does it stand to reason that the enlightenment thinkers (who would categorically deny the possibility of a miracle, and thus had a vested interest in explaining the existence of scripture in a non-miraculous light) were in a better position to evaluate the authenticity of ancient documents than the people who wrote about them, essentially before the ink was dry on the page? (C.S. Lewis wrote a great essay on that topic here: http://orthodox-web.tripod.com/papers/fern_seed.html) Hoffman’s tone of finality and lack of explanation on these points is intellectually dishonest and inappropriate for a popular platform such as Huffpo.
Two. “…whitewashed from mainstream religion…” In so many words, Hoffman accuses the church of mishandling the Canon. What were their criteria for Canonization? What books would have qualified if Hoffman had his say-so? Which, if any, would be excluded, and why? Again, **crickets**
Three. “…whitewashed from mainstream religion in the first millennium AD.” What? As an historical statement this is so broad and vague that it hardly means anything. Of course, it is a popular piece, but still…Who did the whitewashing? How was it done? Did they tell people to have the book burnt? Did they stop producing more copies? Did they ban its sale? Did they just not endorse it?
The first two disappointments covered in this post (misrepresentation of Deuteronomy and silence on central Canon issues) are really nothing compared to the third. Hoffman’s characterization of orthodox Christian teaching on suffering is sadly incomplete. The irony is that his premise accuses the orthodox position of the same thing, viz. the title: “Three Answers to Good and Evil that Were Cut From The Bible”. Astonishingly, Hoffman’s version of the Biblical teaching on suffering includes no mention of the Messiah.
Why is the Messiah a fundamental in the Biblical meta-narrative on good, evil and suffering? He is the central character in Bible. He is mentioned in nearly every Canonical book. One of his stated purposes is to “defeat the works of the devil.” In the battle for the soul of humanity, no one person figures more prominently.
Of all the reasons that the Messiah is relevant, nay, central to this conversation, the most important reason is the Messiah’s answer to suffering: the Messianic ministry of presence. The ministry of presence essentially works like this: I, the eternally pre-existent, all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent Messiah will be with you. Many Messianic predictions in the Old Testament concern his suffering. Many also concern his proximity to the brokenness of mankind. One of His best nicknames is “Immanuel, God with us.” Daniel chapter 3 demonstrates this principle perfectly: He didn’t rescue Nebuchadnezzar’s victims from the fire, but he joined them.
It might be said that he Bible doesn’t clearly answer the “why” of suffering, although there are some clues. What it does is offer the more important answer of “whom?” To whom shall I turn when the world is caving in on itself? The God-man who knows all about suffering because He’s traveled the road to hell and back on my behalf. The one who has all my tears in a bottle and knows the number of hairs on my head. The one who has promised ultimate justice in response to temporal injustice. Delayed gratification for the faithful, rest for the weary, forgiveness for the guilty and rescue for the prisoner. The Messiah is the ultimate answer to the condition of man. To my knowledge, no other major religion has this central feature: a deity who loves us and identifies with us.
Hoffman portrays a neutered and gutted version of the Biblical answer to suffering. His straw-man version has dissonant, disjointed voices that either offer moral platitudes or lamentations over the dismal state of the world. In reality, the Orthodox Canon recognizes the fallen nature of the world and promises a remedy in the form of a rider on a white horse who has already begun His work of restoration in the hearts of his people and will finish it by re-creating the Heavens and the Earth, complete and without suffering.
Dr. Hoffman doubtless generated some conversation, probably sold a few copies of his book. Huffington Post has probably benefited from his material by selling advertising embedded in his article. But has the truth been told, or is it buried beneath the layers of DaVinci Code-styled click-bait?