Hector Avalos’ Unfortunate Hyperbole

Hector Avalos

Note & thoughts on:

From my series on:
The End of Biblical Studies

by Hector Avalos

The title of Avalos’ book is meant to be an attention grabber — “The End of Biblical Studies” !   Well, we know Biblical studies won’t end soon, nor will his book bring them to an end.    Further, in the introduction he claims the Bible is no longer relevant, which is obviously and blatantly wrong.  He tries to qualify this statement by technically defining “irrelevant” to mean that biblical concepts and practices are no longer valuable, applicable or ethical.  Even to this atheist, such an exaggeration seems pure rhetoric.

Dr. Avalos’ language is full of hyperbole, with all its concomitant shortcomings: Those who believe his thesis will read and rejoice and those who don’t may just focus on his exaggeration. I am guessing that Avalos is simply trying to use hyperbole as a corrective to the gross obfuscations that have protected the Bible to date. If so, I understand his feelings but suspect the hyperbole strategy will unfortunately significantly cut both his readership and the book’s effectiveness.

But if the reader can ignore Dr. Avalos’ exaggerations, the book looks like it will decisively dissect much of Biblical Studies. So much so that any reader who understands his message will walk away with a radically different view of the Bible and how the academy continues to deceptively protect the Bible from real understanding.

Here are a few rather standard objections Avalos makes to the relevance of the Bible:

  • Genocide, a common practice in ancient times, is indeed one of Yahweh’s methods
  • Supernatural explanations for disease and other events are offered for phenomena now understood to occur naturally.
  • Women are put in a subordinate position
  • Statistics of Biblical illiteracy among those who claim the Bible is the precious word of God:
    • only 4/10 Christians knew the Bible claims Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount
    • Christians who NEVER read scripture: 21.9 % protestants, 33.1% Catholics

Avalos points out that there is a long history of individuals who, like him, felt much of the Bible is irrelevant, starting with the early church’s heretical theologian Marcion of Sinope (85-160 AD) who wanted the O.T. excluded from Christianity.  Interestingly on pg. 34 of Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman tells us that Marcion’s effort to establish his special cannon is what stirred the Christian sect which was to become the winning orthodoxy, to establish their own cannon.

At the end of the introduction, Avalos softens his claim by saying “Biblical studies as we know it should end.”  (emphasis mine)   And he is straightforward with his motivation for pursuing this end:

… I hold that secular approaches to life will result in the minimization of human suffering, though not its end.
— Hector Avalos (pg 25)

Related Posts:

  • See Jason Bird’s Simul-blog .  Jason is a reader who decided to read this book along with me and to post on it.  He is a heterodox, un-churched, universalist lay Christian.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

19 responses to “Hector Avalos’ Unfortunate Hyperbole

  1. The idea that the “truth” about these things has been shielded is just flat wrong. Critical study of the bible has been going on in this way for two centuries!

    These “results” may not have trickled into the mainstream mind but none of the above points are anything that I haven’t read by Christian scholars.

    It seems you weren’t kidding about hyperbole.

  2. @ Tony

    Good to see you again. Have you read Avalos? Not that it matters, just curious. I guess that is his job in the rest of the book — to show us the shielding process [my words].

    In Chapt 1, Avalos discusses the difference between what “Christian scholars” are aware of and what they put in translations or preach in the pulpit. The shielding takes place by those who know — fellow Christians. What mainly reaches the average believer is sermons and Bible stories — none of the sordid details. Besides hiding by adjusting the Bible translations, intellectual Christians also obscure with theology knots or literary theory.

  3. This may or may not be the case. At the bible school I started at I was taught New Testament Textual Criticism by a conservative Evangelical women who wasn’t shy about the huge varieties and textual families. So even one conservative school at least is teaching these things to their students.

    Granted I would have loved to have known those things when I was a kid but whatcha gonna do?

  4. Interesting, though I haven’t directly read any Avalos, I have seen him quoted many times. He seems to do what many atheists do, and that is argue against conservative Evangelical Christianity.

    To me saying the Bible is irrelevant is like saying the writings of Homer or Shakespeare are irrelevant.

  5. @ adhunt
    Yes, one may hear versions of an “objective” study of scripture at a bible school or seminary, but the reason you don’t hear it as a kid is they want you to believe, not doubt (not think). In most churches, the lay believer gets the sugary version from the pulpit — and as the stats show, very few Christians get any more that that — they aren’t reading on their own.

    @ Mike
    Yeah, it seems that way. Though it is very important to address them. I think still his up-coming insights will be useful for liberals too — Jason, my simul-blogging buddy is such an animal. But I think Avalos’ language is a bit unfortunate. Bart Ehrman does much better !

    I really agree that Shakespeare, Homer and the Mahabharata are still relevant. But we will have to listen beyond Avalos’ rhetoric.

  6. @adhunt, I agree with Sabio’s summary of critical biblical studies not making it down to the level of the congregation in general. As a blanket statement though I do not think it is true, there are a lot of Christians being taught and preached to by seminary educated pastors who are not afraid of higher criticism of the bible. I suspect they are in the minority, but I don’t know. It seems in general there is something of a willful ignorance being practiced by evangelicals.

    The church I attended was led by very intelligent people who unfortunately subscribed to the teachings of very intelligent and prominent teachers who adamantly deny any findings of higher criticism which contradict their strict form of biblical inerrancy. I can’t imagine how teachers at that level can actually honestly believe that stuff. Surely some are dishonest, but it seems many really are sincere in their belief.

  7. Yes and no @atimetorend,

    I’m in the Episcopal Church and we’ve been widely knowledgeable about these things for quite some time, as has most of the Mainline denominations.

    I hope you’all realize how conspiracy theorish this all sounds. “Christians really know the objective truth about Scripture but hide it in order to maintain belief in something they know is actually false.”

    I might as well say that “atheists really know the truth about the subjectivity and cultural relativity of science but hide it in order to get tenure at universities despite knowing it is all false.”

    Look at the way Sabio continually eschews hermeneutics, like it’s some sort of tricky textual magic invented by Christians to maintain their own beliefs.

  8. @ adhunt:

    (1) Am I mistaken, or have you not yet addressed the issue of the difference of knowledge of the textual issues and other that exists between the lay believer and the professional believer (like yourself).

    (2) Have you observed or heard of biblical scholars not discussing the doubts they gained from trying to study the bible objectively with their congregations?

  9. @ Sabio:

    1) You are mistaken. I clearly stated that in Mainline churches the critical study of the bible is broadly disseminated. For instance the Scottish biblical scholar William Barclay composed a multi volume commentary on the whole of the New Testament which took as its specific aim to expose ‘laity’ to critical study. It came out in the mid twentieth century and has sold millions of copies world wide.

    2) This point is a rhetorical jab. Of course there are scholars and even schools that would do this. There are also entire disciplines in the public university system that refuse to engage the last 100 years of certain types of Continental philosophy but you don’t hear me talking about “philosphy” as an abstract body that can be summed up for dismissal. “Christians,” for one, does not, for the one millionth time, mean Conservative Evangelical; so the idea of “Christians” “covering up” and “hiding” things from people in order to maintain an idealogy is just plain ridiculous.

  10. Ian

    I disagreed with Avalos’ opinion that the academy serves to protect the bible from real scholarship.

    But I agree that by and large the vast majority of biblical communication, to both the faithful and other interested parties, does try to systematically bias the findings of critical scholarship over the last 200 years. That isn’t exclusive to evangelical Christianity, in my experience. The same thing I have seen commonly in the episcopal church and in other ‘mainline’ denominations. In the form of subtle harmonization, turns of phrases that suggest to hearers that the weight of scholarship is with, rather than against their beliefs, avoiding the issue of textual problems entirely.

    A small example, I have heard several sermons on the woman caught in the act of adultery (the ‘cast the first stone’ passage). Only once has the preacher pointed out that this is almost universally recognised as a later addition that wasn’t in the original gospel.

    Another example, on Easter Sunday, very few preachers will point out that the accounts of the resurrection are so contradictory, that it is unlikely we can draw much in the way of reliable historical information from them.

    But is certainly worse still in evangelical circles where critical results are considered heretical. Few other disciplines turn critical scholarship into a spiritual warfare issue.

    That said, adhunt is also right that there are resources out there if you look. And the fault isn’t entirely the preserve of the preachers. Most people don’t want to know this stuff, it makes them uncomfortable. They want to go the easy route, so the vast majority of biblical writing is from that point of view.

    As for Avalos’s view. He seems to be laboring under the idea that the only good reason to do biblical studies is to learn something about God, or God’s will. I think we should abandon biblical studies at the same time we decide to abandon study of Plato, or the mabinogion, or the Ramayana.

  11. Dr. Hector Avalos

    Thanks for all of your comments. I think most people miss the point that the title of my book is meant to be a double-entendre:

    1. “End” in the sense of termination.
    2. “End” in the sense of “purpose” as in “the
    purpose of biblical studies.

    I support my notion of “irrelevance” through detailed surveys of biblical illiteracy in our populace, as well as by statements by scholars themselves.

    See also my on-line article published today in
    Bible and Interpretation: http://www.bibleinterp.com/index.shtml

  12. Pingback: The End of Biblical Studies – Introduction « Losing My Religion

  13. societyvs

    In certain aspects of what Avalo’s is claiming I can truly sympathize, even as a self proclaimed Christian. I think the points he is raising have some serious merit – from the schools of theology being apologetic in nature to some of the historicity of the book being in ‘doubt’. I see what he is saying there, I see it also. I am more forgiving – but hey – such is life.

    Where we change directions is in what his premise actually is – to prove the irrelevance of biblical studies and it’s lack of meaning for our society. I disagree. Maybe he is not understanding the modernization of such ideals from era to era – and the direction of the teachings actually having some serious value.

    I also see him jumping the gun on various people – from Abraham to Jesus. He questions the historicity if their actual existence, which I don’t mind, but he also must be fair to admit we don’t have a lot of extra biblical info for likely reasons. But things change, if we have learned anything from archaeology…which is also a question of one’s viewpoint they view it from.

    For example, there is little proof for Moses (Avalos I agree with you). However, why such a story then? Invention? Original under-dog feel good story? Or did something really happen that inspired such a moving idea? Archaeology only has so much to say on this because of limits to such an endeavor (borders and the such).

    As for Jesus, well we know little about him – if we discount anything anyone wrote about him in gospels, Acts, or letters. I agree, we are trying to find the depth of what and who Jesus was – cause the scriptures are framed as narratives and with an agenda. But was he real person?

    I mean, I don’t have to seach far and wide to find people similar in content and frame to him. King Jr. and Gandhi seem similar enough – both minorities as well in their cultural surroundings.

    I guess where Avalo’s is willing to close the book – I am more willing to leave it open for more discussion.

  14. ugh. no sense of metaphor. i have enjoyed your review Sabio and thankfully i’m not reading it. i’m happy Jason is. i can’t even make it through my own religion’s hyperbole like “The Case for Christ” or some other sort of “preaching to the choir” apologetics.

    look forward to more.

  15. @ Luke:
    You see, it is your reaction that I think many will have to Dr. Avalos’ choice of words. But I know you would enjoy and learn from his writing as you have from Ehrman. That is why I call his strategy “unfortunate”.

  16. @ Dr. Avalos
    Thank you for stopping in and for the link — I used it for my next post.
    Though I like strong language, I think that hoping that subtleties such as double-entendres and technical definitions and caveats will be missed. And then only the normal connotations will get through and turn off many potential listeners. But sometimes that sacrifice is worth it. It all depends on the game plan, I guess.

    Again, thanx for visiting.

  17. societyvs

    Sabio gets Avalos on his site…lucky b*stard!

  18. Sabio

    @ Society:
    “Luck” ?
    (btw, did you look at his article?)

  19. societyvs

    I will check out the article, maybe even blog on it!

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