Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Gunning for God (John Lennox) - Chapter 2 Part B. Pilate, Prophecies and Lost in Translation


Chapter 2: Is Religion Poisonous? - Part B Pilate, Prophecies and Lost in Translation

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I ended my last blog post halfway through chapter 2. I did this partially because there is much to discuss, but also because I was rather happy with the closing line and did not wish to see it wasted on a midway point.

In the previous section Lennox went to great lengths to refute himself and then failed to seriously engage with what we Irish euphemistically call "the troubles". There followed a clean division whereafter he returned to Biblical interpretation. Lennox plays a game of association, often enlisting atheists to his cause to confirm the existence of a historical Jesus who was crucified in first century Judea, then making reasonable arguments for an empty tomb. But then he'll glide on to a discussion that presumes the accuracy of all New Testament texts, often with his own interpolations or additions, as seen by his modification of the Ten Commandments and unsubstantiated discussion of Peter's swordfighting ability discussed in previous posts.

He passes out prophecy and statements framed as historically accurate without responding to known criticisms or engaging with questions Christian readers are likely to have. Take the following:
"In another sense, however, Christ was “the King of Israel”. A week earlier he had allowed himself to be acclaimed by the crowds as the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Thronged by followers, he had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, deliberately fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy describing the coming of Jerusalem’s king."
The Old Testament prophecy is Zechariah 9:9:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass. 
I am assured by those who know better than I do that the repetition of ass in Zechariah is a Hebrew poetic device and not intended to be interpreted in terms of eight-legged transportation. Of the Gospels, Matthew describes Jesus travelling on both an ass and a colt with a connecting seat made of clothes. Mark and Luke both refer to a single colt, John refers to an ass. From my point of view it seems a reasonable hypothesis that the author of Matthew, certain that Jesus was the Messiah, felt it entirely fair to consult the Old Testament to see which prophecies he must have fulfilled. Finding the story of a conquering King and misreading the poetic device therein he constructed the awkward two beast entrance, something not favoured by other authors.

In an earlier draft I said that this is merely a hypothesis, that there may be some excellent Christian writing on this apparent contradiction, but that it isn't something with which Lennox engages. I'm indebted to Ronald in the comments section for his feedback, especially recommending Two Asses of Zechariah 9:9 by David Instone-Brewer. It includes a point similar to my own but without the clumsy wording to which I occasionally fall victim after 11pm:
"Although it is possible that Matthew had independent knowledge of a tradition about a second ass, this seems unlikely. This does not mean, however that Matthew would have felt able to invent the second animal. In Matthew's mind it was obvious that Jesus' action was fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah, but it was equally obvious that the prophecy spoke about two animals. He would have felt able to extend the account of Jesus' entrance by using the information he found in Zechariah. This was Scripture, after all, and therefore it was correct in every detail. Zechariah's witness was more weighty than that of Mark, so if Zechariah said there were two animals, it was safe for Matthew to record the fact."
But why the pedantry on my part? In a book targeting new atheists, Lennox would do well to know what they say of the verses he chooses. Bart Ehrman, an author who enjoys considerable popularity with both atheists and Muslim apologists, cites it as a contradiction in the passion narratives in Jesus, Interrupted. It's mentioned by Kenneth W. Daniels in Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary. The Skeptic's Annotated Bible lists it as one of their contradictions. It makes regular appearances on the Atheist Experience, a popular talk show, and is detailed on their parent organisation's site for those who do not wish to go through past episodes. It even gets a mention or two on Richard Dawkins' site - not an area famed for its Biblical reading.

My focus here is not to defend everything that has ever been said by atheists on this particular verse, but rather to highlight that it's widely known to atheists new and not so new, and widely viewed as a contradiction or attempt to insert prophecy into the text. If Lennox wishes to use prophecy to support his case, it seems odd to choose a verse that has been discussed in considerable detail by atheists without a response on his part.

Moving to the historical side, try:
Pilate was now in no doubt that Christ posed no threat to Rome, so he publicly declared him innocent. That was not the end of the matter, of course. The crowd and its leaders at once subjected Pilate to such intense emotional blackmail that he lost the courage to act consistently with his moral convictions. It was Pilate’s moral cowardice, not Christ’s guilt, which led to the crucifixion.
Pilate is painted as a weak-willed coward who bows to commands from the Jewish elite. Contrast this by reading some Josephus, where we see Pilate as the sort of chap who steals temple money for civil engineering projects. In the event of demonstrations he had armed, disguised soldiers mingle with the crowd. At a prearranged signal they attacked, killing many. This is the same Pilate that was recalled to Rome for violent and cruel conduct following a slaughter of Samaritans. Yet Lennox makes no effort to defend his shrinking violet description.

Is this description of Pilate well known by atheists? Channel 4 did a good documentary on the subject, Carrier discusses Pilate in several articles. Still, maybe it's just me. Lennox's description seems at odds in places with what we know of Pilate from historical sources and there's no real effort to smooth the edges.

Leaving his task here unfinished, Lennox goes on to tackle the extent of the violence of Christendom. He makes a passing reference to George Bentley Hart's excellent if inaccurately and unfortunately named book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, and I found myself wishing that Lennox had employed his tactic of quoting lengthy sections from other authors. (Do read Atheist Delusions. Bentley Hart and I part company on some of his conclusions but it's excellent historical research. If you're an atheist it will stop you making inaccurate arguments. If you're a Christian it will stop you making inaccurate apologies.) Instead he quotes from Arnold Angenendt's work, Toleranz und Gewalt, saying that atheists are "guilty of misrepresenting the subsequent history of Christendom", and offering this "comprehensive and magisterial work" to correct us of our error.

I congratulate Lennox on his mastery of many languages, but based on past experiences I grow suspect when he quotes works via his own translation. His previous creationist book cited Siegfried Scherer as a reliable biologist who was undertaking promising work that showed organisms could not evolve beyond a boundary referred to as 'kinds'. When I looked a little deeper it seemed Lennox was only referencing one free online chapter of a book by a man who co-authored a paper on how billions of years of coal deposits could be explained through a Young Earth Creationist framework if we posit vast swathes of giant floating forests.

Yes, you read that right both the first and second time.

Pardon the digression. Toleranz und Gewalt (pictured right, presented in Gunning for God as Tolerance and Violence but not available in English) is described as having "received press acclaim for its thoroughness and accuracy as 'probably the most remarkable book on church history in recent years', and as a book that cannot be ignored by anyone 'who wishes to engage in substantial discussion about the relationship between the crusader mentality and the Christian message of peace or that between inquisitorial severity and religious tolerance.'"

Both quotes come from a single German article on written by popular Austrian blogger Robert Misik, pictured left. For what it's worth I don't dispute the accuracy of the translated section. Still, having mentioned George Bentley Hart's work, why switch to a book that's inaccessible to the majority of his readers?

In terms of hard facts he lists the numbers killed through official sanctioned trials in the Spanish Inquisition as 827 and not much else. He closes by saying "it is impossible in a short book like this to rehearse the encyclopedic details of Angenendt's research, but perhaps it has been sufficient for our purposes to record their existence to make interested readers aware of them." I'll attempt a translation of my own: "Trust me, I'm right, and there's a book in a language you don't speak that proves it."

It may as well be Arabic.

Note - I modified this post in response to constructive criticism and feedback from Ronald, whose input I greatly appreciate. If his comment reads strangely as a result the error is mine.


Ronald said...


Not having read Lennox’s book myself (nor really having any intention to), I’m a bit unclear about what his goals are in this chapter. That is to say, since I don’t know his purpose, I’m uncertain of how fair your criticisms are or if they’re immaterial to Lennox’s overall goal. Maybe I missed it somewhere in the previous post…

With that in mind, I don’t see any problem with Lennox’s recap of Jesus being hailed as king, riding in on a donkey. To my knowledge, it was his act of riding in on a donkey that broadcasted his claim to kingship and made the masses fully aware of his (presumed) intent. Further, isn’t it fairly well agreed on that Pilate wrote (or had written) the sign calling Jesus the King of the Jews? If Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem on the donkey wasn’t historical, what would lead to the crowds and Pilate to assume Jesus was the ‘King of the Jews’? Are there competing theories?

That brings up another issue with your critique. It sounds like you take Matthew to be the primary source of the other Gospels, instead of the generally agreed on Mark primacy. If Mark is the document from which Matthew and Luke (and possibly John) used as a blueprint, then Matthew would have had to knowingly (in his ignorance) alter the text to make it more ridiculous than is believable. Instead of arguing that Matthew makes an ass of himself by doing so (notably by misunderstanding Hebrew poetry, while Matthew is widely agreed to be the most Jewish of all the Gospel writers), one might give him and his audience the benefit of the doubt and search a little deeper instead of assuming the worst.

If you are interested for more on this subject, check out the Unbelievable? all-star David Instone-Brewer’s article, ‘Two Asses of Zechariah 9:9 in Matthew 21’ (it’s fairly exhaustive and you can find it free online). More briefly, DA Carson handles it in his Matthew commentary, as does Davies and Allison in their Matthew commentary. Likewise, and probably most succinctly, Brown handles it in his Answering Jewish Objections 4.

As for the issue of Pilate, I might fault Lennox a bit more here. Pilate’s role can be read a number of different ways, but no one (to my knowledge) disagrees that he was complicit in putting Jesus to death. It is explicitly clear that he had no love for the Jewish leaders, so conceding to their demand to have Jesus crucified would justly be met with hesitation. Notice that Pilate offers a known robber in place of a man he finds no fault with – the religious leaders would have to have extreme prejudice to want Barabbas instead of Jesus (not to mention choosing the convicted robber would diminish their piety). Pilate seemingly scourges Jesus of his own volition (even though he thought he was innocent), and then offers him to the people to be crucified. The idea that he did it to ‘please’ the people comes from Mark’s truncated account, but that doesn’t necessitate that he was a push-over. His primary job was to keep insurrection from occurring, so having one man crucified isn’t exactly a bad deal to prevent a revolt (regardless of how bloodthirsty he was).

For me, it makes sense that a violent prefect would, at the very least, hesitate when he encounters someone as perplexing as Jesus.

Anyway, I don’t find Lennox’s citation of Jesus riding in on a donkey (especially in the context of Jesus being the ‘King of Israel’) a contested enough point for Lennox to have to make special note. Pilate’s a little more of an issue, and a footnote couldn’t have hurt there.

I’ll completely grant you that Lennox blew it with the Decalogue thing. Still, you sure you aren’t just nit-picking here?

Geoff said...

Great comment, much to think about. I'll come back to you this evening. I'm going to be a little cheeky and change the post somewhat based on your feedback, hope that's okay. I will of course acknowledge where I've changed.

Geoff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ronald said...

I am merely a guest in your house. Do as you will.

Geoff said...

Thanks Ronald, I've made a few updates based on your feedback. I hope it makes my reasons for what could fairly have been seen as nitpicking a little clearer, on the Zechariah prophecy at any rate.

In general though, if I am to entertain any hope of finishing this review this year, I should probably consider letting smaller transgressions slide. Writing three chapters on chapter two was not in my initial game plan :)

helenmarplehorvat said...

David Bentley Hart sweet man. I am enjoying the ass stuff though.x
PS I agree with Ronald that the writers knew their hebrew scriptures for sure.

Shane said...

I find Matthew's Double Donkey Dilemma to be very revealing. Matt (not his real name of course) has form in inventing/stretching "prophecy", as seen in the Nativity fiction. Nevertheless, the Zechariah prophecy was very widely known, and messiahs riding donkeys into Jerusalem was normal Sunday morning behaviour in C1CE. Jesus was merely following a long line - nothing special here.
Pilate's "King of the Jews" sign had a very stark pointed message for the Jewish elite - "this is what happens to anyone who challenges the rule of Rome". It was certainly not deference by Pilate, but a final insult.
In reality, Jesus sealed his fate by starting a riot in the Temple.

Billy O'Shea said...

Jesus could only make a claim to the throne of Israel by descent through the male line: via Joseph, as the introductory chapter of Matthew makes clear. So Jesus could either be king of the Jews, or born of a virgin. He could not be both.

Ronald said...

"Jesus could only make a claim to the throne of Israel by descent through the male line: via Joseph, as the introductory chapter of Matthew makes clear. So Jesus could either be king of the Jews, or born of a virgin. He could not be both."

Out of curiosity, Billy, what makes you say that?