The Bible Tells Me So

Noel Weeks
Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So ...: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. New York: Harper Collins, 2014. $17.99/£10.99

This is not an easy book to review because a review calling into question the accuracy of statements or the cogency of arguments could easily be accused of failing to realise that the book's popular tone, style and format do not allow for traditional academic comprehensiveness. Hence it is probably best that I begin by trying to describe and interact with the book's form.

The book mixes popular rhetoric with reference to scholarly consensus; ironic humour with historical statements; personal aspects of the author's own pilgrimage with declaration of states of affairs which the author sees as undebatable. Thus there are at least two levels: the personal and the scholarly. In itself there is nothing objectionable about that. One could argue that scholarship would be less dull if academics revealed more of their motivations behind the dry arguments and it would do no harm if personal rants had more objective basis. Nevertheless there is always the danger that we hide weakness of argument behind rhetoric. "Genocide" is a key word and concept in this book and, to Enns' credit, one that moves him deeply. Surely anybody with that concern should believe that the method for reaching the target audience should not use rhetoric to cover lack of truth.

Hence I will focus largely on the arguments presented. However I think a very subjective comment - and I acknowledge that it is subjective - on the style is appropriate. It reads like a basically serious person trying to be humorous and that can be painful rather than funny. In the cover blurb Rob Bell says "And he's funny." I found it rather wearisome. As the author describes his own journey, it is one of a drift into a basically conservative or evangelical position in adolescence until the point where the inadequacies of that position were revealed to him. The book reads as if it is directed to the adolescent he once was, trying to interrupt the journey at a much earlier point than his was intercepted. Or maybe the style reflects that of his own lectures at present. Whatever the case, I wonder about the wisdom of the style. By its apparent irreverence it will antagonise serious evangelicals, but maybe the author believes that that constituency is beyond reaching. As for the audience, which seems to be his target, adolescents do grow up. I suspect he will condemn himself to temporary impact rather than lasting impression. That should not bother me because I disagree basically with what he is saying. However the author is a person who has had a journey into which more disappointment and sadness has been mixed that we would wish for him. The more he moves into the role of the guru of the once-evangelical-but-now-liberated crowd, the less the possibility of healing old breaches. Such breaches are not just intellectual. They are also emotional and inter-personal. While conceptually this work is the logical extension of the position in Inspiration and Incarnation, where there was a plea to evangelicals to reconsider their traditional position, this work goes further. Behind the attempted lightness of this work are serious concerns. Yet the apparent irreverence of the humorous touches may further antagonise those who disagree and leave those who agree using weak arguments. That is a recipe for further alienation.  

However, I am going to concentrate on the arguments. Basically, the work presents a fairly common understanding of the authors of the Bible as victims of Historical Determinism. They could not but present the views of their time, erroneous although some of those were. God was happy with that because he allows the believers to tell their own story. Enns is relieved by that explanation, because it allows him to see the genocide involved in the killing of the Canaanites as something that did not happen, but was rather the reading of the past by people defined by their tribal way of life, who, naturally read God as a tribal leader slaughtering his foes.

Historical Determinism is a two-edged sword. If its premises are correct, then we also should be every bit as trapped by the beliefs of our time. That means I should be able to explain Enns as forced by the modern context of concern about genocide to want to explain it away. And Enns could then interpret my critique of him as determined by some tendency in the present world, and so on and so on.

We come then to a crucial practical difference between Modernists and Post-Modernists. Modernists say, "The people before us were ignorant and unenlightened, repeating false views. We are different." Post-Modernists say: "We are all trapped in our context. What we say now will be ridiculed by our descendants. Let's go and have another beer!"
In these terms Enns is a Modernist, in that he shows no awareness of the logical consequences of his own position. Of course Biblical Studies is a field where Modernism is still very influential. Another way of saying this is to point to the reverence granted to scholarly "consensus". Once again Enns fits the Modernist profile.

Allow me to illustrate what Modernism does and why Biblical Studies, of the Enns variety, is trapped in its own rhetoric. The tribe is central to Enns' description of the false narrative of genocide. Savagery and killing are to be taken for granted as the expectations of the tribal mode of existence. Really? Is that what an exhaustive review of the Anthropological literature would conclude about every tribe and thus of the tribal state? Is it what scholarship has concluded from the Mari texts, our best window into the conduct of tribes from the Ancient Near East?[1] 

I am not faulting Enns for not giving a review of the scholarly literature in a popular book. I am objecting to the simplistic equation of a mode of physical existence
with ethically suspect behaviour. One cannot require that a popular book show all the reasoning but one can expect that the premises are reasonable.

Since Enns professes an ethical concern, allow me to throw in one. Tribal peoples worldwide have been cruelly treated just on the basis of their tribal mode of existence. The tragic history of settler interaction with the aboriginal people of Australia was influenced by Adam Smith's doctrines that nomads have no legal ownership of land and of the inevitable death of members of less advanced civilizations. Anti-Semitism played on notions that Jews were determined by the evils of their tribal past. 

I am not accusing Enns of any of those moral flaws or their consequences. What I am saying is that rather than doing the hard work, on his own theory, of explaining the Bible as a human product of its environment, he resorts to the cliche of the murderous savage. 

If I stopped there I would be accused of using this to avoid the problem of Canaanite genocide. Let us consider the response of Jesus in Luke 13:1-5 to the report of the massacre of Galileans by Pilate. Jesus does not dispute the belief that this was a judgement of God. He disputes that one could deduce from it that the victims were worse sinners than others. All deserve to perish. One could note also the trumpets in Revelation. With the trumpets giving warning of the even greater judgement to come, a third in each case are destroyed, but the rest did not repent (9:20) leading to the total judgements that follow. The whole Bible does not shrink from ascribing judgement to God and yet it depicts the judgement of some as warning to the rest.

Enns' attempt to deal with the interpretation of the death of the Canaanites as a judgement, one of the few times he considers a counter explanation, is instructive. He says Jesus does not talk about "hell" but about Gehenna, the name of one of the valleys outside the old city of Jerusalem, and Enns gives a history of how that came to be seen as a place of divine punishment.[2]  That hardly speaks to the point because, if Jesus believes in eternal punishment, it does not really matter what he calls it. I wonder if Enns is trying to say that this was only a here-and-now judgement and not an eternal judgement. Of course that does not solve the problem of the Canaanites because, even if you do not believe in eternal judgement, they did die. 

He then diverts to the story of the Canaanite woman in the gospels to whom Jesus shows mercy. Yet this too has nothing to do with the argument that the death of the Canaanites should be seen as a judgement of God. In reality he has not answered the argument that the death of the Canaanites is to be seen as the judgement of God. He can object that it seems contrary to our notions of fairness for God to single out some rather than others for punishment. Yet if we believe in an active God, the providence of God presents us with that problem every day.

I think Enns would have been advised, during his time at Westminster, to have given more consideration to Van Til's position. A logical, internally consistent, argument cannot be refuted by an argument built on totally different premises. The Bible's view of God and his judgements is consistent. For Enns to admit that and to set over against it a secular understanding of justice would just make clear that he is coming to the Bible with an outside standard. 

Another way to capture his problem with Determinism is to take one of his favourite themes: story. According to him the Bible writers are giving stories and every story inevitably reads events, not as they really happened, but as the teller wishes to see them. Fine, except for the fact that he tells his own story and thus opens himself to that very same interpretation. As he tells the story he was struggling with things, which did not cohere with the traditional evangelical interpretation of infallibility. Then in his second year of graduate school at Harvard came a piece of information, which changed his whole perspective. (I will return to the specifics below.)  Yet we know he then went on to teach for fourteen years at Westminster Theological Seminary, an institution that requires of its faculty adherence to the Westminster Confession including that crucial bit in I:IV 
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
Enns' position, after the shock at Harvard, hardly fits there. And yet, was he guilty of dissembling when he joined the Westminster Faculty? I suspect not, and I certainly hope not. Rather, I suspect that there was a process of working through the incompatibility of his own doubts and the traditional position of the seminary. Certainly, when one reads what he wrote while there, one can see the attempt to make the two positions come together. Yet that more complex process is not reflected in the story presented in this book. 

My point is that much of his evidence for his understanding of the Bible rests on the fact that the Bible's various stories show the lack of mutual coherence that must result when various partial stories of the one event are compared. He argues this from a comparison of the gospels and from a comparison of Samuel-Kings with Chronicles. My point is simply that another telling of the Enns' story might present a somewhat different perspective. Is his own telling of his story wrong? Of course not! I just suspect it has simplified a more complex process of growing awareness. What else could he do, because a book, especially one with a popular format, cannot be too long! Why then are similar phenomena in biblical stories to be seen as evidence of tendentiousness?  

I am aware that in arguing this way that I am conceding Enns' crucial point of the "humanness" of the Bible. However what we do with that humanness is the crucial question. To set up the criterion that every telling of a story has to agree and then to argue from the failure of the Bible to meet that is to come to the Bible with false expectations. Truth does not depend upon exhaustiveness. 

I mentioned above the problem that one cannot expect, in a popular work, the sort of reference to, and refutation of, alternate positions that one expects in an academic work. Yet what if the popular work promotes a position that has failed to take note of significant data? Certainly an author can argue that he does not need to acknowledge the problem because he is presenting his particular slant on things and inconvenient data belongs to a rival view. He can say this but I think he has then passed from Modernism to Post-Modernism and Enns is not presenting what he sees as just one equally valid view. If he conceded his view as just one of a number of views, he would have to say that the traditional evangelical view is an equally valid one.

Enns presents a very common scholarly view of Chronicles in which the Chronicler, for his own reasons in his own context, is presenting a sanitized view of David and Solomon as compared with the account in Samuel and Kings.[3]  What he does not tell us is that that view of the Chronicler was developed at a time when modern scholarship was attempting to free itself from what it saw as an oppressive ecclesiastical establishment, and because Chronicles contained frequent references to priests and Levites, it was seen as representing that sort of cultic establishment. Therefore whenever Chronicles deviated from the story in Samuel-Kings it had nefarious and tendentious purposes. 

Once again we come back to the problem of Historical Determinism. This time it is the question of whether it can be turned against the scholarly "consensus". Surely on Enns' own logic, the scholarship upon which he depends can be seen as a product of its times, using a story for tendentious purposes.

A reality that Modernists struggle with is the fact that data has various possible interpretations. Certainly Chronicles presents different material to that in Samuel-Kings, and its emphases can often be seen as appropriate to the work's probable post-exilic context.[4]  However, difference from Samuel-Kings does not mean that the Chronicler is "correcting" Samuel-Kings and deliberately whitewashing David and Solomon. A crucial passage is 2 Chronicles 10:15, where, in spite of the fact that his account has entirely passed over the sins of Solomon, he sees the division of the kingdom as a fulfilment of the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam. To know that prophecy one has to go to the Kings account. In other words the Chronicler assumes his readership's knowledge of Kings and that can be argued from other passages as well. It is scarcely likely that a work dependent on another account is setting out to correct that account. As the title of the work in the Septuagint ("things left out") indicates, it is setting out to supplement the earlier work.

A consequence of scholarship's reflection of the times is that scholarship changes as positions that owed their plausibility to factors in the scholars, rather than in the data, are, sometimes dramatically, sometimes quietly, abandoned. Enns gives the prominence of younger brothers in the earlier history as an example of the influence of later times on the way biblical history is written. The motif he points to in Genesis is really there, and its repetition is a reflection of the way in which there are common features in the stories of the different patriarchs. Enns takes this one particular feature and sees it as the story being shaped by the opposition of younger brother, Judah, and older brother, Israel, in the monarchy period. However when an earlier generation of scholarship observed that same phenomenon of repetition, they interpreted it in terms of separate traditions which had been combined into one narrative in the period of dull-wittedness, which we must expect in a time of priestly dominance. The interpretation given by Enns reflects a shift to reading the Bible writers less as dull-witted and more as politically tendentious. It is not the data that determines the interpretation; it is the presuppositions favoured in the period of the scholarship. Of course there is an alternate explanation of that same data: God is showing that his power and blessing is more important than natural advantage.

Should a popular work go through all these various interpretations? No, but one might hope that a work aimed to deliver people from traditionalism might encourage them to think about the fact that data is not unambiguous, no matter what the current fads of scholarship are.

I have suggested that Enns might have spent some time meditating on Van Til. I would also suggest that a study of Machen would be profitable, especially a study of The Origin of Paul's Religion. Machen was contending with a movement, which wanted to make Paul the founder of Christianity. In that particular case the consequence was the removal of Christianity from its attachment to Judaism and its connection to Greek, i.e. Indo-European, antecedents, and once more knowledge of the period of the scholarship suggests interesting connections. Enns' treatment of Paul is a decided improvement in that he gives recognition to Paul's Jewish context. However, effectively Paul is depicted as the one who, faced with the totally unexpected death of the Messiah, has to reinterpret the Old Testament to fit.[5]  Included, according to Enns, in Paul's rewriting of OT theology is the view, contrary to the OT, that the basic human problem is sin.[6] 

Several matters are involved here. One is the persistent attempt by Enns and similar writers to claim that the NT's exegesis of the OT is invalid and quite contrary to the intent of the Old. If you have described the OT as coming about by the application of very limited human knowledge and perspectives, then it is a problem if the NT sees something else in it. Further, all these positions are implicitly Deistic: God does not involve himself in the world to inspire prophets, therefore anything that looks supernatural, such as prediction of the future, does not fit. The contrary opinion of Jesus is dealt with by making him also a man limited and determined by his time.[7] 

A second feature is that it is part of a shift in thinking about Jewish literature of the time, influenced partly by the Dead Sea Scrolls. This school of thought believes that there was a broad movement of reinterpreting the Hebrew Bible to adapt it to the situation faced by the Jewish community of the time.[8]  It is not that this approach is wrong in itself but note the consequence when the NT authors are seen through that lens. It means the NT is just one more example of a tendentious adaption of the OT to different circumstances. Note further that this is a very Jewish interpretation of the NT. Christianity becomes a rather bizarre variant of contemporary Judaism rather than the proper culmination and development of the OT.

The prominence that Enns gives to Paul leaves a question unanswered. What does he think of Jesus? He claims Jesus was fully divine and fully human but it is the fully human which he wants to emphasise.[9]  He refers to his death and resurrection but is that an historical event or a perception of his disciples?[10]  If he is a man of his times and he is wrong about the OT predicting him, what are we to think of him? The book does not answer. If sin as the human problem was what Paul falsely read into the OT, then it is not just the evangelical doctrine of Scripture that is in question. Once again we come back to the story Enns tells of his life. In his time at Westminster he was saying that he regarded himself as within the Reformed and Evangelical fold. Could he not see that the view of Scripture he was advocating must impact other doctrines as well? Or is it that out of the Westminster context he has become more consistent?

The question of the relationship of Christianity to Judaism brings us back to his awakening moment: the fact that Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:4 refers to the Israelites drinking from the rock that followed them. His Harvard professor, as many others have, related that passage to the Jewish story of a rock that rolled along after the Israelites to provide them with water. Enns described himself as being shattered by the realisation that Paul believed "stupid things like rocks follow people around in the desert to give them a drink."[11] 

Once again we have a problem of data and the interpretation of data. This data has been known to evangelicals for a long time. The most common way to deal with it has been to assume that Paul knew of the Jewish legend but, without accepting it, used it to make a very different point of his own: namely that the significant companion of the Israelites on their journey was Jesus. That is why he said Jesus was a "spiritual" rock. In other words it is a physical to spiritual analogy. Paul does not have to accept the truth of the legend to do this. Indeed he might be seen as denying it by saying the reality was spiritual not physical.[12] 

I would have thought that any resort to a commentary would have supplied Enns with that solution. If it did not, it might be because the real issue was that Paul was linking Jesus to the OT, which on Enns' understanding of the process by which the OT came into being, was not a legitimate connection. In other words the data about Paul is not as significant as the understanding of the process of Scripture formation. 

I have one more example of the problems that arise with Enns' approach. He dates the Babylonian Creation Epic, Enuma Elish, to the time of the Babylonian king Hammurabi.[13] Since he likes to appeal to scholarly consensus he might be interested to know that that is not the scholarly consensus.[14] Composition is now placed in the late second millennium B.C., whereas Hammurabi was early second millennium. 

However the reason for the shift is instructive. The obvious purpose of the text is to exalt Marduk's temple in Babylon and with that the city of Babylon itself.[15] It seemed logical therefore to connect the text to the times of the king who first made Babylon an imperial capital: Hammurabi. However Hammurabi, and his dynasty, did not treat Marduk, their city god, as king of the gods, which is the crucial theological climax of Enuma Elish. The consensus position now dates the composition of the text to the later period where that theological shift is attested.

The basic problem is that our copies of Enuma Elish come from a much later period and all theories about time of composition are conjectures. It seemed perfectly logical to date the text to Hammurabi. It fitted the logic that a text must reflect its context. Yet that theory was possibly wrong and lacks the expected supporting evidence. The crucial problem is that we can conjecture all sorts of possible original contexts for a given text but there are always multiple possibilities. In reality neither early nor later dating might be correct if we are looking at a work composed by a true believer whose beliefs about Marduk and Babylon were indifferent to political realities.

The problems with this text are obviously duplicated with the various hypothetical datings of biblical texts, especially when the authors are believed to be responding mostly to political factors because those factors are most important in today's secular culture.[16] 

I mentioned before the mystery of the role, which Jesus plays in Enns' religion. There seems to be some vague mystical god, who allows believers to do their own thing, but the contours of that belief are very vague. The book is more about what not to believe than about what to believe. Perhaps the Deism, where God plays no role in inspiring Scripture, is compensated by a mystical Jesus but I am not sure even of that. Structurally it might fit with a liberal Judaism.

 So what is the conclusion about this work? I am perfectly happy to concede that its style may appeal to some. I think its major significance will be in showing how Enns has followed the logic of his earlier beliefs into greater and greater distance from orthodox Christianity. In doing this I suspect he has not helped the cause of his friends who have similar reservations about the Scriptures but want to stay with other evangelical teachings. I think this work says that he has consciously left that position far behind. As for the man himself, I suspect that the self-revelations may not reveal areas of hurt and disappointment. I think that in some core beliefs he is simply wrong but, as with many comedians, we would be wrong to see the humour as the most significant personal reality.

Noel Weeks is an Honorary Associate of the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney and the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, having previously taught Ancient History and Akkadian at the University of Sydney


[1] John T. Luke," Pastoralism and politics in the Mari period: a re-examination of the character and political significance of the major West Semitic tribal groups on the Middle Euphrates, ca. 1828-1758 B.C." (PhD thesis, U. of Michigan, 1965)

[2] pp. 42-43

[3] pp. 95-97

[4] I have worked this out in detail in my Sources and Authors (Piscataway, NJ: Georgias, 2011)

[5] Enns sees similar things happening with the gospel writers and he could be interpreted to say that they were all doing the same thing but I suspect, from the prominence he gives to Paul, that he sees Paul as the crucial influence.
[6] Those who, like Enns, see the creation narratives of Genesis as contrary to science and to be rejected for that reason, struggle to know what to do with the NT's appeal to them, particularly Romans 5:12-19. Enns is consistent. He not only removes Adam. He removes sin.

[7]  p. 188

[8]  Note this approach in Enns' treatment of The Wisdom of Solomon in "Wisdom of Solomon and Biblical Interpretation in the Second Temple Period," The Way of Wisdom (B. K. Waltke Festschrift), (eds. J. I. Packer and S. Soderlund, Zondervan, 2000), 212-25.

[9] p. 188

[10] p. 189

[11] p. 17

[12] There are further issues. Greg Beale has pointed out that there are issues such as whether the Jewish legend was extant in the first century AD and the possibility that Paul could have come to his exegesis independently by linking together various OT passages referring to the Angel of the Lord and God's provision for Israel. ( Accessed 11-4-14). I am curious about the origins of the legend. Note that the command in Num. 20:8 refers to "the rock". Under the doctrine of R. Akiba that every word in the Torah was exegetically significant, the definite article would raise a question. Was it the already known and referred to rock from the earlier incident? If so, how was it found in a different place?  That is my speculation but if there is anything in it, then the legend would be post NT.

[13] p. 120

[14] W. G. Lambert, "A New Look at the Babylonian Background of Genesis," JTS 16(1965): 291; ibid, "The Reign of Nebuchadnezzar 1: A Turning Point in the History of Ancient Mesopotamian Religion" in The Seed of Wisdom: Essays in Honour of T.J. Meek, (ed. W.S. McCullough; Toronto: University of Toronto, 1964), 3-13; W. Sommerfeld, Der Aufstieg Marduks, (Kevelaer: Butzon, and Bercker, 1982), 174-213; G. Komoroczy, "The Separation of Sky and Earth," Acta Antiqua 21 (1973): 30; Benjamin R. Foster, Akkadian Literature of the Late Period (Guides to the Mesopotamian Textual Record, 2: Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2007), 24,25.

[15] The creation story in the text is a means to that end but the end in itself very clear. Modern scholarship tends to emphasise the creation aspects of the text because it needs an outside source for Genesis 1. Originally the motivation for seeing Genesis 1 as dependent on Enuma Elish was the Anti-Semitic Pan-Babylonian theory (K. Johanning, Der Bibel-Babel-Streit, (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1988). If the OT authors could be shown to be those who poorly copied Babylonian ideas, then their relevance for modern Germanic Christians was annulled. In more recent times the objectives are quite different. If biblical authors are original, the belief that they are trapped in their time collapses. Further the embarrassing clash with evolutionary theory can be eliminated if the biblical text can be explained as copying, or reacting to, an obviously mythological text. Postulating that the author of Genesis 1 knew the text of Enuma Elish itself comes up against the problem of explaining how an Israelite came to know the esoteric Babylonian in which it is written and yet missed the point that it is really about exalting Babylon. That problem is even more acute if it is postulated that all he knew was a popular version, for we might expect a popular version to stress the main point.

[16] Notice how scholarship plays lip service to interpreting a work in its original context but cannot stop itself from reading the text in modern terms.