Critique of John Walton (Noel Weeks)

This blog post provides a simpler account of a scholarly essay by Noel Weeks called, “The Bible and the ‘Universal’ Ancient World: A Critique of John Walton,” Westminster Theological Journal 78 (2016): 1–28.

But first an introduction.

The titles of several of John Walton’s books make clear his view that the Bible comes from an ancient world that we no longer understand . . . unless we accept Walton’s explanations of how these ancient cultures worked and thought, and then apply Walton’s reconstruction to re-intrepret the Old Testament.

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(IVP, 2009)
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(IVP, 2013)
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(IVP, 2015)

Apparently the books are selling well, for IVP has turned this into a “Lost World” series with one more volume per year, for 2017, 2018, and 2019. In every case the premise of the volume is that Western readings of the Old Testament have grossly misunderstood the meaning of the text by ignoring the Ancient Near Eastern context. For example, The Lost World of the Torah (i.e., of Gen–Deut), due to come out in Feb 2019, argues that “The Ancient Israelites Would Not Have Understood the Torah as Providing Divine Moral Instruction,” and “We Cannot Gain Moral Knowledge or Build a System of Ethics Based on Reading the Torah in Context and Deriving Principles from It” (the book’s theses have been announced online). Presumably the Ten Commandments, part of the Torah, do not provide moral instruction? We shall find out when the book is published.

As with all of Walton’s books, this raises questions about how much we can assume that there was such a thing as an Ancient Near Eastern mindset that was shared across very diverse cultures and several millennia. Weeks’s article from 2010 pointed out enormous problems with this assumption (we reviewed this in a previous blog post).

Enter a second essay by Weeks, directly challenging Walton.

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Weeks begins by pointing out that the crucial weakness in Walton’s method is the belief that the ancient world and our modern world are so vastly different that the Bible’s conformity to thought patterns of the ancient world—as reconstructed by Walton, we hasten to add—and its differences from our world, can be taken for granted. As a result of this assumption, Walton doesn’t need to make careful distinctions in his evidence from the ancient world. Weeks, however, shows how important it is to evaluate the evidence much more closely than Walton does.

First, he points out biases in the textual evidence (mostly clay tablets) from Mesopotamia, that is, the land of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians:

  • 100s of 1000s of Mesopotamian texts versus a few dozen from Israel (besides OT)
  • 90% of Mesopotamian texts are economic or administrative records but the biblical text of the OT is not of that sort
  • the 10% of the Mesopotamian texts remaining are mostly for divination & exorcism
  • next, it’s unclear whether the few Mesopotamian texts that could compare to the Old Testament represent matters central to Mesopotamian thought
  • also unclear whether Mesopotamian scribes recorded views of their own culture & time or simply repeated past stories for other reasons
  • further unknown whether the average person in Mesopotamia thought in the way of these few texts or whether such views belonged only to the elite

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Weeks concludes, “When all these reservation and qualifications are taken into consideration, the simple quoting of a Mesopotamian text as the background to the OT is implausible” (6).

Weeks next reviews the evidence from Egypt, then from Hittite sources, and then from the Transjordan area. The only site that provides texts of ancient myths is Ugarit, on the Syrian coast (7). But Ugarit has no creation account, nor do the Hittite myths (8). The only creation account, from the Enuma elish, is actually about the superiority of the Babylonian god Marduk. The dating of the document’s origin is likely late second millennium B.C., too late to have been consulted by Moses (9).

Weeks asks whether even ten references over two thousand years and two cultures can establish a common view, and then adds that “on some crucial points Walton is more likely to have two than ten” (10).

Walton’s key arguments next receive scrutiny.

  • First, about creation in Genesis not being about the origin of things, but only their functions, Weeks provides two counter examples from Babylonia (11).
  • Second, the particular functions that Walton ascribes to each day of creation are rather out of line with his claim to convey the ancient mindset, for he chooses very abstract functions, such as time, the architectural design of cosmic geography, fecundity, etc. (12).
  • Third, the idea of creation as temple where God came to rest just like all other ancient gods lived in temples is challenged by the fact that these gods were often described as living in other gods’ temples or even reposing outside a temple, and especially, having their more permanent residence in a heaven (13–14, 18).
  • Fourth, the assumed “scientific naiveté of the ancient people in apparently thinking of the universe as a three-tiered structure is false. While such texts exist, other, different texts from the same cultures also exist (14–17).
  • Fifth, the importance of the seven-day period in general does not need to be questioned, but its purported tie to the length of time for building a temple fails (19).

Interestingly, Weeks concludes that Walton has not only made the Bible more like the surrounding cultures, but he has also made the surrounding cultures more like the Bible (18). And, we might add, both as unlike today as possible.

In a major section of his paper, Weeks also critiques Walton’s application of his method to Scripture more broadly, but for our purposes we will not describe this (21–6).

He concludes,

In summary I am not impressed by the whole approach outlined here. There is no recognition of the difficulty of discerning a uniform mind of the ANE. Individual extra-biblical texts are turned into representations of the whole huge chronological and cultural span. Even more striking are claims that are simply false (26, bold here and in following paragraphs added).

The tendency of [Walton & Sandy’s] system is to push any real impact of God on the world further into a grey area . . . They reject Deism . . . but their system has the same tendency . . . The points of interaction between the deity and the physical world are postulates of faith without tangible physical evidence. [However], the biblical text is clear that when God interacts with the physical, the physical world is actually, visibly changed (26).

Structurally this approach is very similar to the neo-orthodox thesis of a Word of God within the Scriptures but not synonymous with the Scriptures (27).

In other words they make no attempt to set forward a method by means of which we might climb out of the language of an ancient time into the message for us. I suspect that they do not tell us because they already know what parts of the text are objectionable. Whether is it the parts that do not fit Kantianism or the parts that make the modern unbeliever scoff, it is modern problems that really drive them. I fear they have fallen into the trap they wished to avoid (27).

We need to see that the Bible stands over against both the ancient world and the modern world. It does so because God is distinct from the creation he made and yet he impacts upon it (28).

For those who prefer to get the gist of this article in video format, you can watch Weeks’s lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, posted online. I’m sure they’ll be happy for the added web traffic 🙂 and you will be happy to listen to his very winsome style of lecturing. A pdf of the article can also be obtained.

 

 

The Ambiguity of Biblical “Background” (Noel Weeks)

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In this blog entry and the next, I would like to introduce two excellent journal articles by Noel Weeks, both of which appeared in the Westminster Theological Journal. The first, featured here, is from 2010. The second is from 2016. Both are available in pdf online (links below).

 

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Noel Weeks is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney in Australia. He has degrees in both zoology and theology and has taught Ancient Near Eastern history for most of his life.

Back in 2010, in Vancouver, I had the distinct privilege of enjoying a very charming and thoughtful lecture by Dr. Weeks on Christian education. His ability to engage an audience and speak intelligently for 45 minutes or more without any notes astonished me at the time.

The article at hand addresses the use of “background” material informing the study of the Bible. For instance, when the Bible describes God’s creating work, does it do so in ways that might be comparable to other “creation” accounts in the Ancient Near East? What about Abraham taking Hagar to function as his wife because Sarah was barren? Was this common? Or, when God makes a covenant with Abram in Genesis 15 or commands circumcision in Genesis 17, is God making use of existing cultural customs? If he is, what can we learn by doing some “background” study? Such study could be very helpful, but it needs to be kept in its proper place. Scripture alone is the Word of God, and the Word of God is self-attesting and fully trustworthy in itself.

A treasure trove of “background” information has become available in the last century. In the first half of the twentieth century this was used to show the reliability of the biblical text, but in the last fifty years it has been used in much the opposite way. Comparisons to other Ancient Near Eastern “creation” accounts, for instance, have lately led John Walton to argue that the church has misunderstood Genesis for millennia. He argues that the Genesis creation account only tells us about the function of the created things, not their origins. According to him, this view of Genesis 1 matches the Egyptian and Mesopotamian way of telling their creation stories.

Weeks’ article from 2010 was written before Walton’s books and arguments had really begun to gain traction. Yet Weeks’ arguments are pertinent: he points out that the use of this biblical background material to back up the biblical account opened up the likelihood that the same material would be used to break down the biblical account—the methodology was flawed. The Christian must first of all receive the text in faith.

Arguments based on supposed parallels often suffer from the following faults:

  1. The cultures or texts being compared had no contact geographically.
  2. The cultures or texts being compared were from vastly different times.
  3. The point of comparison is too general to be helpful.
  4. The assumption of uniformity across cultures, lands, and times is flawed.
  5. The assumption that biblical authors must have conformed to what was common in their place and time is flawed. This denies the possibility of God’s revelation transcending their time and place, of newness, and of change.
  6. The transmission of the text or practice from the one culture to the other culture is rarely, if ever, explained.
  7. Correlation does not imply causation.

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Among the other alleged parallels that Weeks addresses, he speaks to the question of common creation accounts in the Ancient Near East. His comment is very much to the point: “The background to the biblical creation stories has been ‘found’; the problem is whether it has been found in Mesopotamia, Ugarit, Egypt, or a complex mixture” (229–30). As he explains, each of these options presents significant difficulties. In no case have scholars explained how the account of one culture reached another or was used by the other culture. In the case of Egypt, there are even several differing accounts available, so which one is the right candidate as “background” or “parallel”?

Weeks concludes that if scholars are going to read the text of Scripture as if it was locked into its own time and culture, then they need to realize that they themselves as scholars are also locked into their own time and culture (235). Yet scholars constantly act as if they have transcended this problem. This is illogical.

To read the full scholarly article, Noel Weeks, “The Ambiguity of Biblical ‘Background’,” in Westminster Theological Journal 72 (2010): 219–36, click here.

You can also watch Dr. Weeks lecturing on biblical interpretation at a special invited lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary in this 30-minute video.

How I changed my mind about evolution

Review of: How I Changed My Mind about Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science, ed. Kathryn Applegate and J. B. Stump (Downers Grove: IVP, 2016).

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This book features twenty-five autobiographical accounts of evangelical theologians and scientists, in which they explain why they have adopted the theory of evolution. The editors note at the outset that fully “69% of Americans who faithfully attend church weekly believe that God created humans in their present form less than ten thousand years ago” (16). Their goal is to reduce the number of Evangelicals holding this view.

Instead of laying out the evidence of Scripture and the findings of scientists, they opt to tell their stories. Deborah Haarsma, president of BioLogos, acknowledges, “Answers won’t be found solely in intellectual arguments, and sometimes piling on more evidence doesn’t help” (11).

The book’s editors work for the BioLogos organization and share the book’s copyright with it. For those who don’t know BioLogos, it depends on generous funds from the Templeton Foundation and uses these funds to present “an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation” (16).

Each author has his or her unique story. At the same time, one can notice that a number of themes recur in the stories. I will note three major themes.

 

John Walton’s reinterpretation of Genesis 1 & 2

First, the effect of John Walton’s approach to Genesis 1 & 2 has had a dramatic effect in terms of opening the way for Christians to hold to an evolutionary account of the origins of the universe, and even of the origins of life. By appealing to Walton’s arguments, they are able to marginalize the Bible in the origins debate, arguing that the Genesis account only attempts to answer the “who” and “why” of creation, not the “how” and “when” (38, 43). Or, as two other authors put it, the biblical text only addresses the “what” of creation, not “how” God did it (50, 171).

Walton’s claim is that Genesis is simply the Hebrew version of an Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) origins account (93, 102, 109, 118) and that such accounts only teach what was the function and purpose of each part of the created world. Genesis thus sets out to refute the views of surrounding nations only by attributing the existing world to the Hebrew God instead of the pagan gods, and presenting the earth as God’s dwelling, his temple. The origins of the material stuff of creation and the means of bringing the world into being were not the concern in such accounts. These claims of Walton have been soundly refuted by Noel Weeks in an article in the Westminster Theological Journal (78:1 [2016], 1–28). Walton incorrectly interprets the ANE texts, brings together texts from extremely diverse times and contexts, and, I might add, presents an exegesis of Genesis 1 & 2 that overlooks all the points averse to his interpretation and makes words like “create” and “make” mean things they simply don’t mean. I’ve listened to Walton deliver his insights in several long speeches and I’ve read one of his books. Unfortunately, J.B. Stump is correct when he writes of himself that Walton’s scholarship “has been a gateway for me (and many others) to consider a more sophisticated treatment of Scripture” (120). It’s interesting that Walton’s interpretation may appear to be more sophisticated for the average Bible reader, but it’s patently incorrect.

 

The “two books” argument

Secondly, quite a few of the authors refer to Scripture and creation as the “two books,” the books of special and general revelation, respectively (60, 78, 115, 175). Theologians draw from the first; scientists from the second; and both of these “professionals” are supplying us with interpretations of divine revelation. This metaphor for equating the findings of certain scientists with general revelation and calling this “complementary” (18) to the message of Scripture has been around for some time; it may emerge from a misuse of article 2 of our Belgic Confession (190). One author even speaks of “reading the big book of creation alongside the little book of Scripture,” telling scientists that they are “thinking God’s thoughts after him” (95). Another says that the “book of [God’s] works is one that he desires us to take, read, and celebrate” (102).

But the Scriptures never speak of general revelation in this way. Rather, the revelation that is available to all people in the world is enough to make them know that there is a God, and that he should be served and praised (Psa 19:1–6; Acts 17:24). This revelation leaves them without excuse when they suppress the knowledge of God and substitute idols in his place (Rom 1:18–20). The discoveries of scientists are not revelations from God, but human interpretations of data that are fitted within particular theories. The Lord never promised a correct interpretation of nature, but he did promise to lead his people in the rich pastures of his Word by the working of his Holy Spirit. Further, since all people because of sin suppress the knowledge of God from creation, Scripture must correct those misconceptions; thus, the clear message of Scripture must have precedence. Our own Dr. N. H. Gootjes wrote some excellent articles about this years ago, called, “What Does God Reveal in the Grand Canyon.” See here and here and here for these articles, plus a final word here. Let us honour our God by keeping his holy Word in its proper place, far above all humanly-devised theories.

 

Straw man arguments

Finally, the third major theme I picked out was not a theme the authors highlighted, but something I noticed. It really felt to me that the arguments they mentioned against evolution were some of the weakest; they were blowing over straw men. For instance, dinosaurs never existed and Satan buried the bones that testify otherwise (30). Or, “Job invented electricity” (49). These are not the types of arguments used by those who argue for a so-called “young” earth and fiat creation. See this page for examples of arguments that have sometimes been used but are no longer recommended.

N. T. Wright’s chapter—an excerpt from one of his books—tries to relativize the entire young earth position by treating it as a tempest in a North American teapot, as if only unsophisticated revolutionaries would ever treat the biblical text in such a fundamentalist way (131–37). Similarly, another author states, “Despite twenty-five centuries of debate, it is fair to say that no human knows what the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2 was precisely intended to be” (73). I would have expected the editors to excise such nonsense.

Readers must also endure the expected jab at Bishop James Ussher, who concluded that God created the world in 4004 B.C. (72). In fact, Ussher was one of the most learned men of his time, and sought to determine creation’s date because this was an exercise that many other scholars around him had sought to do. Indeed, many Jews still give today’s date as determined from the moment of creation—today, as I write, it is 17th of Tishre, year 5779 since creation began. See here for a date converter.

Finally, all sides in this debate ought to agree that pat responses such as “with God one day is like a thousand years,” will never suffice, and, in fact, represent a misuse of Psa 90:4 and 2 Pet 3:8 (35).

 

Conclusion

The book at hand was not composed to marshal all the arguments in favour of evolution. Rather, it tells the stories of various evangelical theologians, pastors, and scientists. As such, its style is completely in line with the purpose of BioLogos, which aims to “translate scholarship on origins for the evangelical church” (back cover, re the task of Kathryn Applegate at BioLogos). In other words, the book seeks to make evolution seem acceptable by holding up a series of twenty-five models for evangelical believers to follow, and thereby to reduce that statistic of 69% that was mentioned at the outset.

However, the book only leaves me more concerned, inasmuch as some of the strongest arguments that seem to have opened the way for these Evangelicals to change their minds about evolution—the three that recur most often in the book—turn out to be very bad arguments.