How to Handle Fundy Atheists: A Cure for the Infidel Disorder
by Brett Ketterling


Over the years I have been confronted by numerous fundy atheists: people who once took the Bible to be inerrant and deconverted, but kept their fundamentalist hermeneutic and assumed there was no other exegetical route, thus, putting their own views beyond intelligent criticism. Since theirs is a particularly pernicious form of irreligion (absurdly claiming that certain criteria such as "antiquity" have anything at all do with whether or not documents are divinely inspired), it has seemed important to me to develop strategies for dealing with such manifest ignorance.

Fundy atheists should not be humored by being allowed to blabber on unchallenged citing the likes of C. Dennis McKinsey or Farrell Till, or scholars like Loisy (or is it Lousy?) whose findings were rendered to the dinosaur heap decades ago, or Christ-mythers like Wells and Drews, but should be put in the position of having to put up real arguments or (in the words of the immortal Boris Badanov) "shut up their mouves". Greater good can come from making them suffer -- as much as possible -- what the dictionary calls "cognitive dissonance" but we can just call "frustration", by exposing them to the works of serious and credentialed Biblical scholarship (Witherington, Blomberg, Dunn, and so on) for it is out of intolerable ignorance and emotional disability within oneself that deliverance from a lifetime of prattling often comes. That is to say, when a nice ballpeen hammer either doesn't work or isn't readily available.

Just this past week a former clergyperson (of indeterminate gender, so I take it, or else of politically-correct infection) named Soledo, mad as a March hare, came to see me, grinning from ear to ear. Soledo had once informed me, quite sanctimoniously, that 1 Cor. 1:20 "denigrated literacy, logic, and learning" ; I tried pointing out, first of all, the oddity in claiming that ANY text could "denigrate" literacy; that part of the objection was, in terms of consistency, like the billboards posted along the freeway that said, "Can't read? Call this number." Then I launched into an extended explanation (making primary use of Winter's excellent text on the Corinthian dispute) about how Paul was actually addressing didactic values of the day which connected "wisdom" (not true wisdom, as we would say, but pseudo-wisdom) with oratory prowess and pneumatic displays; but I had barely spoken twenty words on the subject when Soledo threw his head back and laughed. "Oh nooo, you don't. That Winter guy is some kind of brainwashed religionist and he makes that stuff up. Don't try to fool me!" With that Soledo walked out, and I expected not to see him again; I was wrong, obviously, but less a measure of the intervening 5 years.

This time Soledo brought a picture of two men, one of them, a filthy, skinny little man who (so he told me at once, seemingly for the value of his stock in the Dial brand) stank enormously. "This is a picture of Alphonse and Terry," Soledo said, and I could not help but notice that Soledo had sometime in the past few hours of his travels made acquaintance with a wreath of garlic. "They once came to me wanting me to test a spirit."

"I see," I said, thinking, is there anyone who actually adminsters the GED to spirits? "I assume that they didn't mean beer or wine," I said, not without some consideration that Soledo's past argument had indicated more than passing familiarity with such refreshments itself. "So what spirit did these two ask you to test, exactly?"

"Ha!" thundered Soledo. "They're morons. Alphonse had been fasting for six weeks, consuming nothing but his own urine and a little water. And get this! I pointed to John 7:37-38, "If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. He that believeth on me ... out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." And that moron took it as verification for what he was doing. Ha ha! What a bunch of morons you fundies are. Am I ever glad I got out of that!"

Deciding it was time to throw a little Biblical scholarship into these proceedings, I asked Soledo, "Do you know what John 7:38 refers to, exegetically?" He didn't, and it occurred to me that he might be Biblically illiterate, having come from a background that believed that the Bible was written yesterday and for him personally, and having assumed that his intellectual "freedom" served as a virtual stamp of approval on whatever understanding he thereafter contrived.

In the Witherington commentary on John [174] appears the following, which I read to Soledo:

Water here, as the parenthetical remark of the evangelist in v. 39 shows, refers to the Holy Spirit, which Jesus would not be able to bestow until Jesus was glorified....There is no allusion here to baptism, but only to the Spirit, as the source of eternal life. It is worth mentioning again Sir. 24:21b where Wisdom/Torah says that those who drink of her will thirst for more. The implication is that Wisdom/Jesus offers a greater thirst quencher than Torah.

"A ha!" Soledo bawled triumphantly, therefore ensuring that I would enjoy his own "garlic experience" for the next several hours, "See? I knew it meant that. I told Alphonse as much. You Christians are so dumb."

"Soledo, is this man a Christian?" I asked, holding up Witherington's commentary.

Soledo hesitated. "I guess so," he said finally. Then he perked up. "But I bet he's not a bibliolater like Alphonse was! Ha ha!"

"A 'bibliolater'? Meaning what?"

"Well -- someone who worships the Bible. Says its divinely inspired."

"Witherington may or may not believe the book is divinely inspired, Soledo, but I can tell you that he regards much or all of it as true. Now let me ask you, is he a 'bibliolater'?"

Soledo shrugged. "Maybe."

"Then let me ask you this, now: Why in the world are you making light of these two guys in the first place? Do you get some crass thrill out of highlighting particular ignorance of this sort? Look, Soledo, how would you like it if I started promulgating Acharya S as the greatest intellect in atheism today?"

"Yeah, well, this guy believed that he saw Jesus in his backyard! No atheist is that stupid."

I rolled my eyes. "Really now. Johnny Skeptic seriously proposed that the body of Jesus was thought to be resurrected when Joseph of Arimathea got hopped up on drugs, went into the tomb, and buried Jesus' body in the floor of the tomb. And don't even get me started on J. B. McPherson's Holey Bible."

"So what? I wouldn't go that far, so there."

"No? Years ago I pinned you for saying that 1 Cor. 1:20 'denigrated literacy, logic and learning'. When I showed you that it didn't mean that, you just laughed and called the scholar I used names. Now look -- here I just showed you that a credentialed Christian scholar agreed that Alphonse was making a fool of himself. You can't have it both ways, Soledo. Either you acknowledge the existence of, and deal with, intelligent Christianity; or you become no better than Alphonse is. Take your pick."

Three shades of purple passed before Soledo spoke again. "Don't you give me that! I have a doctorate, you fundy freak!"

"In philosophy? Yes. But you frankly couldn't exegete your way out of a barn, because a doctorate in philosophy doesn't qualify you for that."

"Fudd!" Soledo groused. "At least I wasn't seeing visions of Jesus in the yard like he was. Like I told him, 'How can you be sure it wasn't the devil? The scriptures say that the devil can disguise himself as an angel of light.' 2 Cor. 11:14."

"Nice try," I said drily. "Witherington doesn't say that much, but he does say [449] it relates to Jewish traditions that Satan changed himself into the form of an angel in a discussion with Eve. And theoretically -- if I didn't believe Satan was bound right now -- I'd allow that Satan could just appear as a bearded man and fool an Alphonse into thinking he was Jesus; but only because no one knows what Jesus looked like. But really, you are not that much better. Like Alphonse, you only read the text on the surface; you have no idea what it really means, and don't care."

Behind his garlicy exhumations, Soledo whitened. He sank down to the floor, obviously rattled by the prospect there really were Christians out there who could make mincemeat of his arguments. But within moments, Soledo was up again, banging on my table with his fist. "Not so fast!" he shouted, as though he could erase the past few moments with one of his old sermons. (Would that the garlic aroma were erased instead!) "Let me tell you some more stories. I don't care smart you get, you're always going to be deluded!" And with that he went on to tell me a story, of two "very bright and clinically sane students, possessed nonetheless by fervent fundamentalism," and "an elderly divine" they brought with them. Soledo summed up -- a little too quickly, and without much in the way of details, for reasons I have suspicions about -- how he would offer "rational exegesis of a passage" and his discussion partners would either bring up another passage as a counter, or ask him if he knew Hebrew. I have suspicions about this because the questions and methods on the surface seemed perfectly logical -- issues of language, and of contemporary texts (really, the common sense and secular form of, "the Bible interprets the Bible" that those in the Reformed tradition hold to) obviously affect exegesis, though I suspect Soledo never knew that as a "clergyperson" of indiscriminate gender. But the story came down to that Soledo, so he says, wanted to get rid of them and claimed that he had committed the unpardonable sin and was beyond redemption.

"Then he asked me what I had done to do this," Soledo primped proudly. "I said to him, 'You should know, being a Bible scholar.' So there goes anything you can say about scholars, fundy-boy."

"I would guess that he did have some idea," I replied evenly, "but the thing is, many rank and file people don't. And it seems to me that you ought to appreciate that he didn't 'poison the well' by asking you what you did first. Isn't that something of an objective approach that you'd otherwise respect?"

Soledo blanched again, and I was sure that it wasn't because the garlic had gotten to him. "Come on! It's clear as day: to blaspheme against the Holy Ghost one merely has to ascribe to Beelzebub responsibility for certain healings Jesus allegedly performed, and I could never honestly make that kind of ascription. I don't believe in Beelzebub or Jesus. Either one."

"Nice try," I said again. "But you're enslaved to your fundy past again. Blasphemy of the Holy Ghost is NOT that simple. The Holy Spirit is God's active principle in the world, as the Son -- Wisdom, or the Word, the Logos -- is the Father's command and direction. By 'active principle' I mean that the Holy Spirit is the personified effect of God in the lives of people and in the world. By 'blaspheming' the Holy Spirit, Jesus therefore refers to one who denies the divine authority and activity of the Spirit -- as did those who attributed the exorcisms of the story to Beelzebul. That is a particular example of it, but it's hardly the only avenue for doing do. Here's what Dunn, in Vol. 2 of Christ and the Spirit, said about that:

...the beneficial effect of [Jesus'] exorcisms was so self-evidently of God and wrought by his Spirit, that to attribute it to Satan was the worse kind of perversity -- deliberately to confuse the Spirit of God with the power of Satan was to turn one's back on God and his forgiveness (Mark 3:29).

"So in terms of the post-resurrection scenario, this also applies to those who refuse the prodding of the Holy Spirit to believe the Gospel. They deny the activity of the Holy Spirit in prodding them to believe, and thus blaspheme the Holy Spirit by putting his activity down to guilt feelings, intestinal gas, and so on. So in a sense, you are right -- you have committed, and commit even now, the unforgivable sin, because of your unbelief. You're no more informed that the 'zealots' you've been making fun of."

At this Soledo stormed out of the room, and I thought for a time that he'd be out of the room for another few years. But it seemed I was wrong. He came back at once with a sheaf of papers, which he told me were the transcripts of his debate with Dr. Norman Geisler. "We'll see how you like this!" Soledo proudly declared. "I'll trample you like I trampled Geisler -- one of your top scholars!"

"One of my top scholars?" I replied mildly. "I don't think so. He hasn't appeared in any peer-reviewed journals about Biblical exegesis that I know of. But do go on."

Soledo yanked a page from the middle of the stack -- I don't know how he picked this one in particular -- and glanced at it for a few moments. With a broad grin on his face, he came around to my side and, creaking and huffing, knelt beside me. He then said, "Luke 6:30 says, 'Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.' Give me your money, all of it." And then Soledo held out his palm and grinned like an idiot.

I considered his visage for a moment. Then I shrugged. "Sure. Show me your weapon and you can have it all."

Soledo's grin dropped. "What weapon?"

"The one you're robbing me with. The word for 'ask' connotes the sense of demanding. The obvious context is that Luke 6:30 refers to someone taking someone else's money by threat of force. In the first century, you see, if someone larger and stronger, or with a bigger club, took away your stuff, there wasn't a whole lot you could do about it -- and you couldn't dial 911 and have the cops come over and fill out a crime report, then go out and put the crook in the slammer, because the Romans were too busy or didn't care to address such matters as petty crimes among the commoners. So all you could do was fight back yourself -- and that's what Jesus is saying not to do here."

"Fine!" Soledo railed. "I don't have a weapon, but I know jiu jitsu. Hiiiiiiyyyaaa!" As he said this he got up and assumed a rather laughable pose, like something out of Hong Kong Phoeey; I wasn't encouraged, either, by the fact that he had pronounced it "jeeeyo jitsu" as Daffy Duck once had.

"Good enough for me. But as soon as you leave, I'm calling the police and turning you in. That's another point to the Bible's teachings here -- let justice rest in the hands of those with whom it is invested by God (Rom. 7). If you give me your attorney's phone number, I'll even call him for you and save you the quarter when you get to jail."

With a pale look about his cheeks, Soledo finally pulled himself out of his Hong Kong Phoeey pose and waved at me wanly. I hoped that the lesson in contextual exegesis would have a sobering effect that would in the long run be beneficial, particularly for Soledo's future discussion partners -- the next line made it clear that Soledo himself was beyond redemption. Almost at once he brightened and pulled out a bottle of what I recognized (by the look and smell of vomit that emerged when he unscrewed it) as V-8. "Drink this!" he shouted. "In Mark 16:17-18 Jesus is supposed to have said that believers will be able to pick up or drink any deadly thing without harm. And you can't quote 'Ye shall not tempt the Lord your God . . .' (Deuteronomy 6:16), because you're not asking your Bible-god to drink my brew but are merely checking out the credentials of one of his alleged servants."

"A real servant," I said evenly, "knows his master's instructions. Mark 16:9-20 according to external and internal evidence was not part of Mark's original text. Nice try. Keep going."

Soledo hesitated. He corked his bottle back up, then out of another pocket somewhere (I hadn't noticed he had so many) pulled out a large paper bag, angled so that I could not see the interior. "In Luke l0:l9, Jesus says his disciples can tread on serpents and scorpions without being hurt. So thrust your hand into this! You don't have weak faith, do you?"

"Not at all. But I do see that this passage is addressed specifically to the seventy that Jesus sent out on a mission to evangelize. Which means, that 'scorpions and serpents' are metaphors (as they were in the Old Testament) for the enemies of Israel. I'm not one of the seventy, and Jesus has never given me a mission like theirs. But if you want me to stick my hand in there, I'm all for it. Just give me the name of your attorney again so I can call him first. There are laws in this state about controlling venomous pets."

Soledo gave me a long, hard look and then threw the bag away. It seemed to have been empty, but I wasn't sure. He smiled again. "I know you're married to that Annabelle girl. Do you still have sex?"

"Why?" I asked drily. "Are you having a hard time remembering what it was like?"

Soledo turned purple again. "No! Paul clearly said in 1 Corinthians 7:29 that Christians should cut it out, because the end of the world is near at hand."

"Cut what out? Coupons?"

"SEX!" he roared, turning a shade of chartreuse I hadn't thought possible.

"Oh, I see," I said. "Well, let's say you are right, which you are not. As a preterist, the 'end' predicted for 1 Cor. 7:29 is the end of the age Paul was in, and that came in 70 AD anyway. And Paul's dictates of behavior are to remind the Corinthians that their existence is no longer to be dictated by the schema of the world -- its institutions, its things, its joys and sorrows -- because those institutions are going to be radically transformed or are not permanent. This indeed did come to pass, of course, even if you are not a preterist -- Paul's opponents in Corinth and their ideologies (proto-Gnosticism perhaps, or Stoicism) have indeed passed away, as have the social institutions and schemes associated with the Roman Empire and the world as Paul knew it. But besides all that, remember that Winter guy?"

"Deluded religionist," Soledo muttered.

I ignored him. "In After Paul Left Corinth [216ff] Winter showed that what Paul calls the 'present distress' in 7:26 was a food shortage in Corinth. Winter shows that there were severe grain shortages in the 40s and 50s AD (cf. the shortage predicted in Acts) which in turn produced social distress (riots, crime). Paul speaks of the distress as present, not as impending or future. This is not an eschatological warning. The second point is that the language used by Paul here is not about unmarried persons, but about a husband and wife abstaining from sexual intercourse. Note that in verses 1 and 2:

1 Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2 Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.

"Now 'woman' and 'wife' are the same word in Greek. Winter shows that the rendering of the word 'woman' as 'wife' is much better and reflects secular use of the word, and indeed fits better with the lack of personal pronoun 'his' before the word in 7:1. Now it is recognized that 7:1 is Paul quoting back a Corinthian viewpoint. Apparently due to the famine, some perceived that it would be good to abstain for sexual intercourse, and Paul responds to this by noting that married persons did have this obligation to one another. Far from advising against marriage or sex for all time, or because of the end of the world as you say, Paul is speaking on an entirely different topic. So you're busted no matter where you turn. Sorry. The advice is clearly limited to Corinth at least and to matters prior to 70 at most."

Soledo's eyes by now had glazed over. He pulled another paper put of the sheaf and stared at it for a while; by the way he was holding it, I was able to see (and read) in reverse what was on the paper. "Don't even try it," I said after a while. "Matthew 10:8, as well as 17-22, is just like Luke 10:19 -- addressed to a specific set of people, not a universal instruction for all of Jesus' disciples everywhere to heal the sick and raise the dead, or to check whether they are disciples because everyone hates or persecutes them."

Soledo looked up and held the paper to his chest, clearly disturbed that I had been spying. "Yeah? How do you know?"

"Can you read verses 1-5?" I asked, holding up a copy of Matthew. Soledo read:

And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease. 2Now the names of the twelve apostles are these; The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; 3Philip, and Bartholomew; Thomas, and Matthew the publican; James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him. These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying...

"Um," Soledo said, and he put down the book like it had been a dead cobra. He stuck his lower lip out. "So now you'll go on about my happiness or misery after death. How do I know you're presenting a picture of the real, true hell, huh? Suppose you end up in the Muslim hell?"

"Suppose you make an objective case for Islam being correct," I retorted, "without staying an atheist. Or were you suggesting I consider the matter just to deflect attention?"

Soledo's face brightened. "How about Luke 14:26? 'If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.' Does that describe you? How does that fit in with loving others? If you really hate your life, then why all your concern about living forever in heaven?"

"I have no such 'concern', as it happens," I said. "You can keep your own prior narrow-minded Christianity out of my life. The ancients were present-oriented; they didn't have 'concern' about such things. As for living Luke 14:26, I do, and I live it in context. Luke 14:26 falls into a category of 'extreme language,' the language of absoluteness used to express a preference, and may refer to disattachment, indifference, or nonattachment without any feelings of revulsion involved. Like Genesis 29:30-1:

And he went in also unto Rachel, and he loved also Rachel more than Leah, and served with him yet seven other years. And when the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren.

"Here, 'hated' is clearly used synonymously with one who is loved less. (See also Judges 14:16 and Deut. 21:15-17.) Here is another example from Jesus, Luke 16:13:

No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.

"Such extremes of feeling would be atypical, but the extremes are not meant to be taken literally; the point is that one master will get more dedicated labor than the other. Secular works have the same sort of hyperbolic language. Fitzmeyer's Lukan commentary offers this example from Poimandes 4:6:

If you do not hate your body first, O child, you will not be able to love yourself.

"Do you suppose that this teaches literal hatred of the physical body, Soledo? It does not -- it emphasizes the need to give preference to the whole self before the body alone. Literal hate of the body would have us cutting it with razors or hitting it with blunt objects -- an extreme practiced in some Eastern faiths, but not among the Greeks! Here is another example from a war song in the Poetae Lyrici Graeci (see James Denney, The Word 'Hate' in Lk. 14:26, Expository Times 21, 41-42): it is said that in battle, men 'must count his own life his enemy for the honor of Sparta' -- is this a literal hatred of one's own life being taught? No! It is emphasizing the need to make one's life secondary for Sparta's sake. Here's a final example from Epictetus 3.3.5: 'The good is preferable to every intimate relation.' This is just a more abstract version of Luke 14:26! Bottom line, son -- you need to stop listening to Dan Barker and start dealing in some serious scholarship that understands the texts in their contexts."

"Nothing but excuses," Soledo grumped. "I'll bet you have a 'contextual' answer for Matthew 5:48? Why doesn't that say you have to be literally perfect?"

"It certainly sets the ideal, much as Deut. 18:13 did for the Jews," I replied. "But if you think exhortational moral aphorisms are absolute commands of expectation, you clearly haven't done much homework. I suppose next you'll designate everything in Poor Richard's Almanac an 'absolute' just to create a bad argument."

Soledo thought hard for a moment. "Are women allowed to speak aloud in your church?"

I knew where this was going at once; it was old hat, so I pulled a Barney Fife on him. "No, they are not. And neither are men, for that matter, which was the same in the day when Luke wrote the Pastorals for Paul. Men AND women alike were supposed to 'learn in silence with all subjection'. As Grenz and Kjesbo put it:

Despite the negative connotations this phrase brings to our ears, in the first century "silence" (hesychia) was a positive attribute. It did not necessarily entail "not speaking," as is evident in Paul's use of the word earlier in the chapter (I Tim 2.2; compare 2 Thess 3.12). Rather, it implied respect or lack of disagreement (as in Acts 11.18; 21.14). As a result, the rabbis and the early church fathers deemed quietness appropriate for rabbinical students, wise persons and even leaders.

Soledo drew back angrily. "Yeah, well, it also says, 'But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.' What a bigot!"

"Nice try. Mickelsen put you to rest on that already:

Another factor basic to the interpretation of 2.11-12 concerns Paul's use of the unusual word authentein (translated "to have authority over" RSV) in the second injunction (2:12). This is the only occurrence of this word in Paul's writings and, indeed, in the entire New Testament. The word is not frequently used in ancient Greek literature. The precise meaning of authentein and its use in 2:12 cannot be completely resolved at this time; scholars are currently in an extended debate on the issue.
Traditionally, authentein has been understood to connote a sense of "domineer" or "to usurp authority" and the term is even associated with murder. Although not all of the evidence and arguments have been fully assessed, two points seem relatively certain. First, the term is unusual. If Paul were referring to the normal exercise of authority, his otherwise constant exousia/exousiazo ("authority/to exercise authority") vocabulary would most likely have been used. The choice of such an unusual term itself indicates that Paul intended a different nuance or meaning. Second,...many uses of the term seem rather clearly to carry the negative sense of "domineer" or "usurp authority." Thus I see the injunctions of 2:11-12 as directed against women involved in false teaching who have abused proper exercise of authority in the church (not denied by Paul elsewhere to women) by usurpation and domination of the male leaders and teachers in the church at Ephesus.

"Let me sum it up for you, son: This verse is directed again to a specific context -- in this case, a Gnostic heresy that somehow argued for some very strong subordination of men to women, because it saw women as the originators or creators of men -- and that's why Luke/Paul also make an issue of the order of creation: Adam first, then Eve."

At this point Soledo seemed clearly out of sorts. He excused himself for some water, and after he had been gone several minutes, I started to wonder if this time the lack of return would be permanent. Before long the odor of garlic reminded me otherwise; it came about 3 seconds before Soledo did. His hair was wet and his face was red, but he did have a stupid grin on his face again. "You bibliolaters can be quite wily," he said. "You want me to believe everything in the Old Testament that is agreeable to you, but if I quote something that you don't believe or practice, you will tell me that you are not under the old covenant but are under the new covenant of the New Testament religion. What's the principle by which you cast off whatever you cast off in the OT and keep whatever you keep? Why do you ignore what you ignore?"

"Ever read something like Hillers' book on covenants?" I asked. "I didn't think so. It's pretty simple if you do some homework in credentialed sources. First, some OT laws are universal moral laws: Do not steal, do not kill, and others. Second, some laws are cultural universals. By this I mean laws geared to Israel's culture that have a universal moral law behind them. As an example, some have suggested the prohibition on trimming your beard [Lev. 19:27] relates to pagan practices that cut facial hair for magical purposes. So the universal behind this cultural would be, don't do the occult. But here is my favorite example, from Deut. 22:8-9:

When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.

"Your buddy McKinsey once said, 'One would be hard-pressed to find home builders' who follow this rule. But actually they do follow the modern equivalent. In ancient Israel, the flat roof of a house would be used for many purposes, such as sleeping, household chores, and entertaining. These chores included drying and storage of produce; even today the roof is used for such things in modern Arab nations. We don't use our roof the same way -- the modern equivalent is a balcony. It would also be agreed that the universals behind these cultural applications should continue to be followed."

"Finally, there are ceremonial laws. Instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant, for example, are definitely in this, as are sacrificial laws. What else belongs in here? Most likely the dietary laws belong here, as their purpose was to make the Jews 'different' and to serve as a testimony to their difference in the most intimate ancient setting, that of meal fellowship."

"So there's the general outline for how I make a determination. You want to discuss some specific laws now? Beyond the 'all agree' level of things like murder, and in the category of things like homosexuality and adultery, we can say that when a superior writes a contract, even if you are not a party to it, the contract will still give you an idea what values the superior holds to. We no longer enforce the penalties, but we still know what actions displease God. On the other hand, all of the ceremonial laws has been superseded by Christ. (Hebrews is the NT book that lays this out the best, though see Matt. 26:28.) They pointed towards Christ and the unified body. Thus also there is no need for the laws of diet and not wearing two types of fabric woven together (the latter of which may have been related to magical practice, but may also have been a symbol of purity and separation) -- there is no longer a case of a certain people reserved to God, for the new covenant is open to all.) So what do you want to talk about?"

But Soledo didn't want to talk about it. The stupid grin still in place, he said, "Aren't you going to plead with me to pray for enlightenment each day, or to read the Bible, or to attend church?"

"No," I said, and that was all I said. Befuddled, as though I had robbed him of a good argument, Soledo asked, "What do you want me to do then?"

"Homework," I said evenly, "before you mouth off about what the Bible says. I've read the works of your best authors; think you can do the same courtesy? I've seen what you've said about, 'Biblolaters will charge you with taking it out of context; but they won't know the context either.' Well, I do know the context -- and I get it from people who know their business. So now who's squirming?"

"Well," Soledo grumped, "Why am I supposed to take what you quote as literal but you are not supposed to take what I quote as literal?"

"Where did I do that so far?" I asked. Soledo stared for a moment, clearly at a loss. Evidently he'd spent a great deal of time honing his sound bites but not much time giving them depth. But he brightened again.

"Are you a fool for Christ?" he asked.

This sounded like it ought to be new and worth some amusement. "Not that I can see," I replied dryly. "I am talking to you, aren't I?"

"Well, you ought to be a fool, because according to 1 Corinthians 3:18, 'Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise [logic, philosophy, science, etc.] let him become a fool that he may be wise.' "

"I see. Well, I put that whole argument of yours about 'wisdom' in 1 Corinthians to rest ages ago, remember? There's nothing about 'logic' or 'science' involved in that. If anything those Paul says seem 'wise' means those with great rhetorical prowess and with pneumatic displays."

Soledo had clearly forgotten about that. Undeterred, he pulled out another sheaf, and I could swear that I scented mold as he did. "Well, here's an example of a god-awful passage is in Exodus 21:7, where the Bible-god gives instructions to fathers about selling their daughters into slavery. Since 'maidservant' in the text means 'slave,' don't tell me that this is something less than slavery."

I shrugged. "The word 'slavery' has been used to define all sorts of institutions. As Miller says, scholars of the ANE have often abandoned the use of the general term 'slavery' in descriptions of the many diverse forms of master-servant that are manifest in the ancient world. We would never say that the American President's Cabinet members were his 'slaves', but the term would have been applied to them in the ANE kingdoms. What Exodus describes is closer to what we call 'indentured servitude'. But go on with your anachronisms."

Soledo paused for only a moment. "OK, smartypants. I've heard that the Bible is big on the importance of the family. Is selling a child into slavery what one expects of a good family?"

"That depends, little one. The ancient law of Ex 21:7-11 allows an Israelite father who is poor or in debt to sell his daughter to be the slave-concubine of a master or his son. Of course since a daughter left the household upon marriage, this was functionally no different in terms of how the family members could relate to one another. And if anything, it was a win-win situation for the family, which was thereby lifted out of poverty, and the daughter, who became part of a wealthier family and gained the privileges of a daughter. Did you bother to read verses 8 through 11?"

I didn't let Soledo have a breath before I read it to him: "If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. 9And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. 10If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. 11And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money." I looked at Soledo with a hard expression. "Know what 'bethrothed' means there, buddy? This is why you have to be careful applying terms across cultures. If this were true slavery, the man would have the right to sell her to a foreign power. And notice that if there's a betrothal, she is treated 'after the manner of daughters'. Now does that sound like Kunte Kinte and Bell to you? I don't think so. It's high time you boned up on what ANE life was really like."

Soledo hadn't anything to say there either, but switched gears: "So why doesn't it apply to Christians? And why is it Jesus never once had anything critical to say about slavery, or Paul either? Huh?"

"You'd know the answer to BOTH of those if you'd do an ounce of homework. I already answered the 'why doesn't it apply' part -- you think forms of servitude reflect some sort of universal? As for Paul and Jesus, as Miller says, given the complex situation, we would not expect blanket commands to 'free the slaves', if for no other reason than that infanticide-rescued infant slaves and aged/infirm/sick slaves would become critically destitute. We might expect a general encouragement away from a slave system, though, and that's what we see in Paul. There were no slaves under Jews in Palestine, though, so I don't know why you expect a word from Jesus. You need to brush up before you talk about this again."

"Hmph. OK then, in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 Paul tells believers to deliver a certain not-so-evildoer to Satan for the destruction of his flesh. Just how were they to do this? Did Satan maintain a pick-up point somewhere in Corinth where Christians could hand evil-doers over to Satanic transport and delivery, or did the Old Nick himself pop in now and again to harvest sinners personally?"

"Chuckle until your head falls off, laughing boy. Ever try reading a scholarly commentary like Witherington's [158ff]? The meaning here is of an expulsion from the church -- and here, not to Satan personally, but to the world, and the realm where Satan is the "god of the world". "Flesh", from the way it is used elsewhere in Paul as well as in other Jewish literature, refers to the weakness and sinfulness of humanity. So the process is much the same as it might be to let a drunkard drink himself into insensibility, which in an honor-shame society would have been a much more effective tactic than it would be under a modern, individualistic, 'I'm proud of myself and don't care what anyone else says' routine. Note that this man's sin is 'such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife.' (5:1) This is not something like alcohol where he will be able to find drinking buddies or social support; his acts would be a disgrace to the whole of society, even non-believers. It is Paul's hope that the man, expelled from his social network in the church, will be shamed and left with no recourse but to repent, since no other group will accept his behavior either. If you had even an ounce of knowledge about the workings of a collectivist society, none of this would be a mystery to you."

I noticed that by now Soledo was trembling violently. This time as he started reading from one of his papers, it was soaked with sweat, and the commingling with the garlic smell was a little disturbing. "Well, I guess you believe that moon rock will turn to blood some day," he said after reading his latest page.

"No, I believe that the governmental powers of Israel failed in 70 AD. Now I'll leave you to stew in your own juice over that. Maybe it will bring you to your right mind when it comes to interpretation of the metaphors of another culture, but I kind of doubt it."

"Metaphors, huh! Then what about this -- do you believe the earth Noah's ark settled down on was the same as the one that existed when the flood waters began to rise?"

This one too sounded new, which was a virtual guarantee that it would make a good entry for that old show, Foul Ups, Bleeps and Blunders, so I indulged him. "Sure."

"Ha!" he said, acquiring what I supposed he thought was a knowing look, but which appeared to me to be gas. "Then what about 2 Peter 3:6-7? 'Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished. But the heavens and the earth, which now are . . .' The word for 'perished' means annihilated or abolished. So obviously Peter doesn't agree with you. While old Noah and his menagerie were up on those flood waters, poof! The first world disappeared and the Bible-god made a new earth for the ark to land on."

I was right; this one was particularly stupid.

"I see. Can you give me some other examples of where this word is used?"

Soledo drew back as though he had not expected that answer. He clearly had hoped I would need to be going, pressing business, many other lost souls to be reached, etc.

"No? Let me help you out. The same word is used to describe what Herod wanted to do to the baby Jesus. Now I know you don't believe that story, but do you suppose Herod was out to render the baby Jesus into quantum particles?"

Soledo now assumed a shade of red I hadn't seen on him before. It looked quite complementary to his orange necktie.

"Let's try another one. It's the same word used in Luke 15:24 -- 'For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' My goodness. So the father thought the son had been reduced to atoms, and a new one created? That's news to me."

"ALL RIGHT!" Soledo shouted, throwing his hands into the air. "So I didn't look up the word that closely. Big deal."

"It most certainly is," I said drily. "Anything else?"

His face brightened. "Yeah, since you ask. You mentioned Matthew 2:13. That's an example of a place where Matthew misused the Old Testament, you know."

"Misused? What do you mean?"

"Well first of all, you would say that the Bible is true because of its fulfilled prophecies, right?"

I knew where this was going, and that my answer would set Soledo back on his heels again. "No. Not really, that's not one of my usual arguments. Maybe in a few limited cases, but not as a whole."

Soledo looked stunned. His mouth hung open for about 15 seconds; I decided to spare him further embarrassment.

"Don't get me wrong. It's not that it's too hard to date any of the prophecies; there are standard methods to date ancient texts, and I know how to apply those -- the Bible does no less or more of a job dating itself then, say, the works of Livy. On the other hand, I know it's easy for you to just claim that the predictions were written after the events in question. Since the hard textual data makes the matter equivocal, there are very few instances where I will claim that 'the Bible is true because of its fulfilled prophecies.'"

Soledo smirked. "Yeah, after the fact. Like Daniel. Plus we can never know when a book was edited, huh?"

"True, the works of Tacitus could have once been sandal repair manuals. If you want to posit conspiracies, any thesis is possible, because proof is not needed. And if you want to argue about the date of Daniel, I have some information -- "

"NO!!!" Soledo shouted, then looked away, a deeper shade of red than before.

"I thought not," I said. "Bet you still use that, 'Daniel has a bunch of Greek words in it' canard, huh?"

Soledo turned even redder, if that were possible. I went on.

"Most prophecy fulfillments like Matthew's, though, are not strictly speaking claims that Isaiah knowingly predicted the life of Jesus. Rather, they are a form of support for testimony called 'probabilities' -- verification from general experience. Ancient rhetoriticians noted that when setting forth a statement to a judge or jury, orators should 'pay attention to the question of whether he will find his hearers possessed of a personal knowledge of the things of which he is speaking, as that is the sort of statement they are most likely to believe.' An appeal to common experience was always helpful to aid in understanding. So when Matthew appeals to Is. 7:14, the rules of engagement don't require that Jesus also have eaten curds and honey as in 7:15, and so on. In fact, do you know what midrash was?"

"I think so. I had to take some powder for it once."

I rolled my eyes. "No. As Moore puts it, Midrashic exegesis ostensibly takes its point of departure from the biblical text itself (though psychologically it may have been motivated by other factors) and seeks to explicate the hidden meanings contained therein by means of agreed-upon hermeneutical rules...The purpose of midrash exegesis is to contemporize the revelation of God given earlier for the people of God living later in a different situation. What results may be characterized by the maxim: 'That has relevance for This'--that is, what is written in Scripture has relevance for our present situation. In so doing, early Judaism developed what George Foote Moore once aptly defined as 'an atomistic exegesis, which interprets sentences, clauses, phrases, and even single words, independently of the context or the historical occasion, as divine oracles; combines them with other similar detached utterances; and makes large use of analogy of expression often by purely verbal association' (Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, 1.248) Now doesn't that sound exactly like Matthew's use of Isaiah 7 and 53?"

Soledo shrugged. "Yeah, well, then the rabbis were stupid too. They abused the OT just as bad."

I shrugged too. "You're still a bigot is all I can say. Any more pearls of wisdom before you leave?"

Soledo thought hard and rifled for another sheaf. This one, I could see (he forgot to hide the back from me, so I could read it through again), When somebody quotes scripture, say that you don't believe the Bible because its prophecies are mistaken. This will hit hard, because the bibliolater is programmed to believe that prophecies are a strong recommendation. I could see him struggling to make this one work, but since I had not quoted Scripture in that way, he seemed at a loss. I continued my backwards read through the back of the sheet and noticed what was next.

"You ought to know that I think the things predicted in Revelation and in Matthew 24 and such did come to pass in the first century," I said.

Soledo looked up, distracted. "Say what?"

"You heard me. I don't need the 2 Peter 3:8 dodge, as you call it. Can I give you some material to read on that?"

And with that, Soledo slammed down the paper on the top of the stack, picked up the whole collection, and stormed out of the room, loose bits of the stack flying off as he went. I shrugged again. It was doubtful that he had learned his lesson, but sometimes, making this sort of humorless wretch stew in his own juice is your best option. If you get lucky, they'll go comfort themselves by listening to the Stay Away Pope Polka for a few hours.