Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Jimmy Carter: Bible Scholar?

By Jimmy Akin

Former President Jimmy Carter has a new Bible!

One he wrote himself!


The publishing house Zondervan has produced a new study Bible titled the NIV Lessons from Life Bible: Personal Reflections with Jimmy Carter.

Get yours today!

Or don’t. Actually, let’s go with that: Don’t. Definitely don’t.

Not if you want Bible commentary from someone who knows what he’s talking about.

Carter can’t even display minimal coherence regarding biblical interpretation in friendly interviews designed to promote his . . . er . . . book.

Consider the veritable storm of nonsense he unleashed in this interview with the Huffington Post.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush: Thank you so much for talking with me President Carter. As I warned, I am going to be asking the tough questions. So ... Did God write the Bible?

President Jimmy Carter: God inspired the Bible but didn’t write every word in the Bible. We know, for instance that stars can’t fall on the earth, stars are much larger than the earth. That was a limitation of knowledge of the universe or physics, or astronomy at that time, but that doesn’t bother me at all.

Hmmm. God inspired the Bible but he didn’t write every word in it.

How does that square with Jesus’ statement: “I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18)? This seems to suggest that God didn’t only supply the words but the individual letters and strokes.

That doesn’t mean that God intended everything in Scripture to be a straightforward, literal assertion to be understood in the sense a modern would take it. Clearly he doesn’t. Let’s take the passages about stars falling to earth as an example.

It’s true that for modern English speakers the word “star” normally refers to astronomical bodies like the sun which, as Carter points out, are far too large to fall to earth without destroying it. But to the ancients it also referred to other celestial bodies, including the planets. While they also are too big to fall to earth, the word also applied to other objects that could fall to earth, including comets (“hairy stars”) and meteoroids, or what are commonly referred to (when they enter earth’s atmosphere) in English as “shooting stars” or . . . wait for it . . . “falling stars.”

Even in English we call them “falling” stars. Is there really no phenomenon that, taking the passage in a literalist sense, it could be referring to?

How about meteor showers?

And that’s only if we confine ourselves to taking the passages in a literalistic sense. If we broaden our interpretive options and consider the ways that Scripture uses stars as symbols, new possibilities appear.

In Revelation we have the symbol of stars explicitly identified as referring, on at least some occasions, to angels (cf. Rev. 1:20). What if we’re talking about fallen angels (as seems to be the case in Rev. 12:4)?

In other places, stars can symbolize the leaders of a people, as when they are used to symbolize the patriarchs of Israel (Gen. 37:9-10). Could we be talking about a convulsion that topples the leaders of a people?

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist—or even knowledgeable about modern science—to have that interpretation occur to you. The Medieval Jewish commentator Maimonides proposed exactly that explanation for Isaiah 34:4-5, which describes God’s judgment on the ancient Edomites in terms of stars falling. He writes:

The prophet means to say that the individuals, who were like stars as regards their permanent, high, and undisturbed position, will quickly come down, as a leaf falleth from the vine, and as a fig falling from the fig-tree [Guide for the Perplexed 2:29].

This interpretation of Isaiah is, incidentally, shared by many Protestant interpreters who Mr. Carter would pillory as Fundamentalists. Even they—people highly inclined toward literalistic interpretations—often favor this interpretation.

In fact, I can’t think of anybody who thinks that the giant masses of fusing hydrogen that we think of as stars either fell to earth at the judgment of Edom or that they will do so in the future.

There are just a bunch of alternatives to thinking that while taking the text seriously.

But Carter seems aware of none of this. The statement about stars falling to the earth conflicts with the first interpretation he thinks of, and he’s willing to say that God didn’t write this passage. He thinks it’s scientifically inaccurate and so non-divine in origin, even though (a) there are literalistic interpretations that are possible like meteor showers and (b) symbolic interpretations (like fallen angels or fallen political leaders) that are also possible.

How do you approach the passages in the Bible that talk about God’s creation (Genesis 1:1) while maintaining a positive attitude towards science?

I happen to have an advantage there because I am a nuclear physicist by training and a deeply committed Christian. I don’t have any doubt in my own mind about God who created the entire universe. But I don’t adhere to passages that so and so was created 4000 years before Christ, and things of that kind. Today we have shown that the earth and the stars were created millions, even billions, of years before. We are exploring space and sub-atomic particles and learning new facts every day, facts that the Creator has known since the beginning of time.

Carter says, “I don’t adhere to passages that so and so was created 4000 years before Christ.”

What passages would those be?

Carter seems to be thinking of the chronology of Church of Ireland Archbishop James Ussher, who held that the world (not “so-and-so”) was created about 4000 B.C., but that’s Ussher’s calculation—not a passage in the Bible.

What do you say to those who point to certain scriptures that women should not teach men or speak in church? (1 Corinthians 1:14)

I separated from the Southern Baptists when they adopted the discriminatory attitude towards women, because I believe what Paul taught in Galatians that there is no distinction in God’s eyes between men and women, slaves and masters, Jews and non-Jews -– everybody is created equally in the eyes of God.

There are some things that were said back in those days –- Paul also said that women should not be adorned, fix up their hair, put on cosmetics, and that every woman who goes in a place of worship should have her head covered. Paul also said that men should not cut their beards and advocated against people getting married, except if they couldn’t control their sexual urges. Those kinds of things applied to the customs of those days. Every worshipper has to decide if and when they want those particular passages to apply to them and their lives.

Okay, wait. “Paul also said that men should not cut their beards.” You know how many times the word “beard” (or “beards”) appear in St. Paul’s writings? NONE! You know how many passages in the New Testament there are that say not to cut your beard? NONE! The passage Carter apparently has in mind is Leviticus 19:27, where the Law of Moses requires the ancient Hebrews not to cut the corners off of their beards. And if Carter were displaying any real grasp of Paul’s thought, he would realize that Paul was a sharp critic of imposing precisely this kind of Mosaic cultural/ceremonial requirement on Christians.

The knowledge Carter displays of the Bible and its proper interpretation is profoundly disturbing. One could forgive him a slip. Everyone has slips of the tongue and slips of memory, but this degree of incoherence is not what one expects of the author of a study Bible.

I’ve got more to say on President Carter and his forays into religious subjects, but for now . . .

What do you think?

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