Category Archives: Avalos: Bad Jesus


2015-07-25

Hector Avalos Responds to Robert Myles’ Review of The Bad Jesus

by Hector Avalos

The following response by Dr Hector Avalos to Dr Robert Myles‘ review of The Bad Jesus was originally posted on Debunking Christianity and is reposted here with permission.

Dr Robert Myles and The Bad Jesus:  An Androcentric Defense of Family/Household Abandonment?

By Dr. Hector Avalos

Dr. Robert Myles of the University of Auckland (New Zealand) has reviewed The Bad Jesus in two parts available here and here.

He is the first biblical scholar to perform such a review of The Bad Jesus on the blogosphere. I was especially interested in his comments because he specializes in New Testament and Christian origins, as well as in Marxism and critical theory.

cov266Myles is also the author of The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), which treats a few of the subjects I do.

That book offers many provocative observations, and I recommend it to anyone interested in issues of poverty and homelessness in the Bible. His book came to my attention too far into the editing process of my book, and I did not include it in my discussions. I did read it by the time I wrote this post.

Although Myles’ review raises some interesting questions, it ultimately does not represent my arguments very accurately or address them very effectively.  I will demonstrate that his review actually is, in part, an androcentric defense of the abandonment of families by Jesus’ disciples. I will address the objections he raises against my methodology and my discussion of Jesus’ view of abandoning families, especially in the case of the men he called to be his disciples in Mark 1:16-20 because that is one main example Myles chose from my book.

MYLES AND METHODOLOGY

41zpIKZfb-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_To understand how Myles misrepresents or misunderstands the purpose and method of my book, it may be useful to begin with the introductory summary of  the book that I provided on pages 8-9 of The Bad Jesus:

  1. Biblical scholarship is still primarily a religionist apologetic enterprise despite claims to be engaging in historico-critical and descriptive scholarship.
  1. A more specific Christian orientation is clearly revealed in the manner in which the ethics of Jesus are predominantly viewed as benign and paradigmatic, even among supposedly secular academic scholars.
  1. However, many of the fundamental ethical principles announced or practiced by Jesus actually would be antithetical to those we otherwise describe as ‘acceptable’ or ‘good’ by some of the most widely accepted standards of ethics today.
  1. Accordingly, such a predominantly benign view of Jesus’ ethics signals a continuing acceptance of Jesus as divine or as morally supra-human, and not as the flawed human being who should be the real subject of historico-critical study.

Myles diverts his attention from my stated purposes to a critique of neoconservative or capitalists ideologies. Such critiques of neoconservatism or modern capitalism may be sound, but they are not the most relevant to my argument about how Jesus is treated in New Testament ethics. According to Myles:

Methodologically, Avalos’ book is weak, which is unfortunate as I think the broader argument has a lot of merit. Avalos self-identifies as a a [sic] New Atheist. This perspective holds that theism is generally destructive and unethical. It is embodied for example in the writings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. What Avalos doesn’t explore is how this movement has also tended to form strong associations with a neoconservative political ideology, perhaps expressed most triumphantly by the late Christopher Hitchens. In and of itself this might not appear overly relevant, but its importance will become obvious shortly.

There are two problems with this criticism. First, Myles left out that I identified myself with a “Second Wave” of New Atheism on p. 15 of The Bad Jesus:

So, perhaps, one can view atheist biblical scholars as ‘Second Wave New Atheists’ to contrast with the non-biblical scholars that dominated the first wave. Readers should view the present work as the first systematic New Atheist challenge to New Testament ethics by a biblical scholar.

Indeed, I explicitly named Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris as being part of that First Wave from which I was differentiating myself.

Any ideological critiques he launches against Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens may not apply to the Second Wave, and don’t apply to me.

My agreement with the New Atheism was qualified as follows: “Insofar as I believe that theism is itself unethical and has the potential to destroy our planet, I identify myself with what is called ‘the New Atheism” (p. 13). Myles’ review erroneously assumes that I identify with the New Atheism insofar as every other ideological or capitalist feature he identifies.

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2015-07-20

De-Sacralizing Jesus

by Neil Godfrey

41zpIKZfb-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Recently we looked at Tom Holland’s interest in “de-radicalising Muhammad” and today part one of an online interview with Hector Avalos has appeared in which he discusses his new book The Bad Jesus in which he exposes the “low-down” on Jesus. Just as Holland argues for the importance of promoting an understanding of what can and cannot be known about Muhammad, Avalos argues that the Christian bias of New Testament scholars has driven them to put a superior ethical spin on acts and sayings of Jesus that are in fact antithetical to today’s ethical norms.

Avalos explains that The Bad Jesus is actually a sequel to The End of Biblical Studies.

Biblical studies is still part of an ecclesiastical academic complex, very biased toward the Christian viewpoint in particular, and religionist throughout. Biblical scholars are there to promote the value of the Bible because in part it is self-serving. It furthers their own profession to be biblical scholars. And if the Bible has no value then what use is there for Biblical studies. . . 

A religionist, “in particular Christian orientation”, permeates the field of Biblical studies and Avalos observes that the subfield of Christian ethics is the most biased of all. The ethical superiority of the purported founder of Christianity is the lodestone of the scholars involved. In Avalos’s mind the reason for this is that most scholars continue even today to view Jesus through the lens of Chalcedon and Nicea. Though they claim to be studying the historical Jesus they nonetheless still see Jesus as divine.

This should not be a controversial statement to anyone who has read a wide range of historical Jesus studies. Even “liberal Christian” scholars have made little effort to hide their belief that Jesus is alive today and that they regularly commune in some manner with him.

An interesting biographical detail we learn is what led Hector Avalos to undertake formal studies in the Bible after becoming an atheist. read more »


2015-07-06

What Did Love Mean to Jesus? Pt 2, or How can Love be COMMANDED? (Avalos and The Bad Jesus)

by Neil Godfrey
Assyrian king's treaty commanding love from his vassal.

Assyrian king’s treaty commanding love from his vassal.

I am overviewing only one chapter in The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics. There is much more to Hector Avalos’s critique. Some of the points I touch on here are elaborated more fully in subsequent chapters. (I am looking forward to catching up with those subsequent chapters though I probably won’t be able to post on them individually. See my earlier post for a list of the topics covered. Note that Avalos’s chapter 3 concerning Jesus’ command to hate has been raised in part in earlier publications and touched on in my 2010 post The Dark Side of Jesus: His call to hate one’s family to be his disciple: note also the more extensive depth in which this theme is tackled in the contents of The Bad Jesus.)

The most striking point for me about Avalos’s analysis of the concept of love as found in the Bible is his explanation of how it pertains more to an antiquated master-slave/lord-vassal relationship (or to use Thomas L. Thompson’s metaphor, a Mafia Godfather family relationship).

Far from being mutual or self-less, agape [=love]may describe behavior that entails violence, not to mention other hierarchical behaviors. Part of the reason for the change [towards the realization of this lord-vassal context of love] is that previous scholars had been too eager to divorce the New Testament use of agape from corresponding words and concepts in the Hebrew Bible. After all, Christianity was often thought to be bringing something radically new.

The word ‘love’ often designates the attitude and set of behaviors that a Lord expects from his vassal in the ancient Near East. (p. 39, my bolding in all quotations)

Avalos gives us a glimpse of an ancient Assyrian “treaty” (seventh century BCE) with a subject king:

(You swear) that you will love Ashurbanipal, the crown prince, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord as (you do) yourselves. (See Wiseman, “The Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon”)

The full treaties are of interest beyond the snippets quoted by Avalos. Notice below how the obligations they contain sound so very much like both the directives of the Bible’s “loving God” as well as “ideal love” in our sense of the word — if only they were not part of the master-slave “contract”:

You will not seek any other king or any other lord . . .

(You swear) that you . . . will die (for your lord). You will seek to do for him that which is good. That you will not do to him (anything which) is not good. . . .

(You swear) that you will love Ashurbanipal, the crown prince, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord as (you do) yourselves. That . . . you will not slander his brothers, his mother’s sons. That you will not speak anything that is not good about them . . .

Avalos asks readers to compare these sorts of sentiments with others we find attributed to Jesus. Disciples are to love God more than themselves, to die for Him, to have no other loyalties apart from their devotion to their Lord — to the extent of hating all prior loyalties such as parents — and, of course, to speak no evil. And curses are pronounced upon those who disobey just as they were threatened against the Assyrian vassals.

A very influential 1963 article by William Moran, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy” (CBQ 25.1 1963 pp. 77-87) is important for Avalos’s argument. I quote sections from that article directly:

Love in Deuteronomy is a love that can be commanded. It is also a love intimately related to fear and reverence. Above all, it is a love which must be expressed in loyalty, in service, and in unqualified obedience to the demands of the Law. For to love God is, in answer to a unique claim (6:4), to be loyal to him (11:1, 22; 30:20), to walk in his ways (10:12.; 11:22; 19:9; 30:16), to keep his commandments (10:12; 11:1,22; 19:9), to do them (11:22; 19:9), to heed them or his voice (11:13; 30:16), to serve him (10:12.; 11:1,13). It is, in brief, a love defined by and pledged in the covenant — a covenantal love.

Moran pointed towards implications this has for the teachings of Jesus in the gospels:

If . . . the old sovereign-vassal terminology of love is as relevant as we think it is, then what a history lies behind the Christian test of true agape — “If you love me, keep my commandments”!

read more »


2015-07-05

What Did Love Mean to Jesus? Pt 1 (Hector Avalos’s The Bad Jesus)

by Neil Godfrey

“What is love?” asked the older Sunday school student.

The professor replied, “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more.

Alas, the student did not get the joke. The professor tried to turn the tables with another song lyric: “I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.

This [divinatory] use of the scriptures fed into rabbinic halakhic hermeneutics . . . . [I]t was established by the rabbis (a) that scripture was a self-explaining system, and (b) that its statement of the law was incomplete. Hence by means of a system of deductive and inferential rules, the implicit meaning of the scriptural system could be made explicit, and the entire will of God be made known. In an analogous way, the diviners of Babylon had for centuries compiled copious lists of signs and their meanings, based, apparently, on experience. If rabbinic exegesis, then, was in a sense mantic, it shared with the ancient omen-lists of Babylon a quasi-scientific character, though one based not on collections of recorded cases but a set of exegetical rules. (From P.R. Davies’ On the Origins of Judaism, p.52, cited by D. Boyarim in his RBL review. See also P.R. Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, p.146f)

Being the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature the professor ceased playing with rock song lyrics and required the answer to come from 1 Corinthians 13. This segued into what was sometimes a mantic or divinatory reading of the passage. Thus to render this ancient passage relevant to modern and personal interests there were times when they interpreted it the way ancient priests read meaning from the entrails of a sacrificed sheep or the way astrologers have always interpreted the heavenly lights. Apply the rule that scripture is a self-explaining system and see what meanings emerge when the word “love” is treated as a cipher for God, or for oneself. (The semantic game itself is flawed, however, because 1 Corinthians does not “define” the word for “love” per se; rather, it offers a series of things love “does” or how it is expressed.)

A more reliable way to understand what the Bible means by “love” is to take Professor Hector Avalos‘s approach in the opening chapter of The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics and examine the way the word is used in the biblical literature as well as in the literature of the wider cultural context (Near Eastern, Greco-Roman) of those scriptural texts.

Though Avalos’s focus is on the figure of Jesus his discussion embraces the wider context of the cultural and literary heritage as it comes together in the words attributed to Christianity’s beloved Son of God. Avalos expresses some dismay that so many biblical scholars (and not only Christian ones) routinely attribute to Jesus an ethic of love that was astonishingly advanced for his day. If these scholars were as well informed about the wider world of ideas from which the Bible emerged as they are about the Bible itself they could scarcely make such claims, Avalos argues.

Take Jesus’ teaching to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Many of us know that this is not really original but is really a citation of Leviticus 19:18. Jesus was quoting the Old Testament. Avalos reminds readers that “your neighbour” in the Leviticus passage

is actually best understood as ‘your fellow Israelite’.

For the details he refers to Harry Orlinsky’s essay, “Nationalism-Universalism and Internationalism in Ancient Israel” in Translating and Understanding the Old Testament; Essays in Honor of Herbert Gordon May (1970), and to John Meier’s fourth volume in his Marginal Jew series, Law and Love (2009).

Indeed, Lev. 19:18 does not obligate universal love, but, in fact, is premised on privileging love for fellow Israelites over love for non-Israelites. (p. 33)

Attempts to reinterpret the passage to make it conform to ideals of universal brotherhood are without “sound linguistic parallels” and “supporting documentation” — and are entirely speculative.

Epictetus

Epictetus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not that the ancient world was bereft of the concept of “unconditional universal humanity”. The moral teaching of early Christianity was “conditioned by adherence to a particular religion.” To find “modern” ideas of the universality of human kinship one must turn to the predominant philosophy in the Roman world, Stoicism. (The link is to Wikipedia’s notes on the social philosophy of Stoicism.) Avalos cites various scholars including the following (although I have quoted my own selections from them):

In short, Stoic theory is decidedly universalistic in its scope and makes no ethical differentiation between particular groups of people. (Runar M. Thorsteinsson, Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality, p. 192)

Thorsteinsson certainly grants that various moral teachings in the New Testament epistles enjoin a peaceful disposition towards society at large,

However, a closer examination of the texts shows . . . there is a fundamental division between those within and those outside the Christ-believing community. (p. 205. The reference here is specifically to 1 Peter and the epistle of Romans.)

Love for enemies — it’s so BC

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2015-06-10

Why Does Jesus Never Do Anything Wrong?

by Neil Godfrey

41zpIKZfb-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Hector Avalos, biblical scholar and author of The End of Biblical Studies, has written a new book critical of New Testament ethics, The Bad Jesus. He describes this new work as

the first systematic New Atheist challenge to New Testament ethics by a biblical scholar. 

What is meant by a “New Atheist”? In Avalos’s words:

Insofar as I believe that theism is itself unethical and has the potential to destroy our planet, I identify myself with what is called ‘the New Atheism’. For my purposes, the New Atheism describes a post September 11, 2001 (9/11) phenomenon, which viewed that event as illustrative of the potential of religion to bring global war and even the destruction of our ecosphere. . . . The New Atheism features a more vocal and anti-theist stance (rather than just passively atheist stance) as embodied in the writings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. (pp. 13-14)

Ouch. That makes me wonder if my own passive atheism is a mark of irresponsibility. But I have my own carefully considered reasons for not identifying with this trio. Blaming religion per se, I think, misses the real historical culprit: the self-serving and destructive institutional powers that religion serves to smokescreen from view. Consequently New Atheists can sometimes unwittingly become mouthpieces in support of those powers.

Leaving that crucial point to one side for now, let’s continue . . . .

Although not as well known as these writers, there also has emerged a group of biblical scholars who, while not necessarily describing themselves as ‘New Atheists’, do openly identify themselves as atheist, secular or agnostic (e.g. Kenneth Atkinson, Robert Cargill, Richard Carrier, Bart Ehrman, James Linville and Gerd Lüdemann.) . . . 

The New Atheism emphasizes the immorality of religious thinking itself. It challenges the ethics of Christianity and the Bible, in particular. (p. 14)

I have addressed aspects of Avalos’s thinking in this regard in other posts.

Why is Jesus bad?

First point to make here is that Avalos is not addressing any particular model of “the historical Jesus”. read more »