Showing posts with label Reliability of the Bible. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reliability of the Bible. Show all posts

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Bible Tells Me So- A Book Review






   Peter Enns

Reviewed by

   Geoffrey W. Sutton

Bloody violence, talking animals, mysterious beings, rules for slave holders, and managing your bodily fluids challenge anyone who makes a New Year’s resolution to read the Bible. I could have used a book like The Bible Tells Me So when I was a teenager attempting to make sense of this holy book I was dutifully bound to read. And in those days, the Bible sounded even more removed from my reality in the language of Shakespeare.

Even with modern translations, some old stories still sound quite strange and leave an intelligent inquirer wondering about what kind of God kicks people out of their home for eating a bit of fruit, changes his mind about creating people because they’ve turned out so bad, or orders his people to kill an entire tribe of other people so his tribe can have their land?

Peter Enns offers some answers in seven easy-to-read chapters. The problem with the Bible isn’t the Bible. The problem contemporary readers face is understanding a collection of ancient texts free from a defensive posture created by religious leaders who do not take challenges lightly. In Chapter 1, Enns invites us to interact with the text and appreciate how ancient people understood God and their spiritual journey.

The bloodthirsty warrior God appears in Chapter 2. He’s the one who scared the hell out of children who, like me, grew up in fundamentalist homes. You knew God meant business, because he killed, or ordered the killing of, men, women, and children who were from other tribes. And he even killed off his own people when they stepped out of line (remember the flood and other stories). By the time we get to Jesus’ talk about a loving heavenly father, we may wonder what kind of love are we talking about?

So, how does Pete deal with the big killer question?

God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.” (786*)

I’ll comment on this later. It’s a big deal.

Chapter 3 is about ancient stories. Enns reminds readers that people tell and retell old stories based on imperfect memories and how the storyteller interpreted past events. The stories were told with a purpose that gave meaning to their present time and served “to persuade, motivate, and inspire.” (1085)

Peter offers a number of examples of different narratives about similar events from the Gospels and the Old Testament. He helps readers think about the big picture by explaining that the Old Testament was written during the period of the monarchy and exile. The early origins stories introduce the main story, which is Israel’s monarchy, exile, and return.

In Chapter 4, Peter explains why the Bible isn’t an owner’s manual explaining how to do life. Examples from what appear to be conflicting advice in Proverbs help make the point that wisdom is needed to deal with particular situations.

Jesus’ way of interpreting the Bible is the subject of Chapter 5. Enns illustrates how Jesus gets creative when he interprets old texts in terms of his present situation. This creative way of looking at the old text was not unique to Jesus. But Jesus stood out based on his claims to identity and authority. A quote offers a useful summary of Jesus’ way of introducing new perspectives: “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” is hard to square with a rulebook view of the Bible.” (2501)

In Chapter 6, Enns focuses attention on Jesus as the key to understanding what the Old Testament is about. The gospel stories introduce Jesus as the saviour of Israel—the one who will make good on the old promises and the one who is superior to the Roman Caesar. He adds Paul’s interpretation that the gentiles are now equal with the Jews before God and in Jesus all have freedom from the old laws. This requires faith in Jesus that what sets people apart as people of God is not circumcision but love evident in how people treat others.

Enns ends it all in Chapter 7. Readers are challenged to make an “attitude adjustment.” On the one hand, Pete writes “The Bible is God’s Word.” But on the other hand, he asserts: “The Bible is not, never has been, and never will be the center of the Christian faith.” Enns draws attention to God and God’s work in Jesus as the centre of faith.


I recommend The Bible Tells Me So to all those Christians who have become disenchanted with literal, or near literal, interpretations of the Bible that produce feelings of being trapped, fearful, guilty, and struggling to make sense of ancient perspectives on science, history, and how God works in people’s lives. As a bonus, Pete’s writing is easy to read, provocative, funny, and snarky.

Ungodly Warrior

I recall a Christian professor commenting on the horrible murderous things God did to people in the Old Testament. I suggested, as a psychologist, that it seems a lot like war propaganda. The stories governments would come up with to convince their men to fight because God is on their side. And to convince the enemy that they, and their gods, are no match for what our God can do. Perhaps, it’s not unlike children having faith that when the chips are down, they can count on their dad to whip the opposition. I don’t claim to be right. And I was pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful reaction of the professor. It is hard to make sense of the God Jesus described as a loving father if the same God is not exactly prolife a few centuries before Jesus. In short, Enn’s presentation of the Warrior God should be helpful to those looking for an explanation that makes sense of the alleged atrocities.

Ancient Views

Enns points about interpreting the old stories may also help people avoid the futile efforts of trying to find ways to match biblical understandings of the world and the universe to the ongoing discoveries of modern science. Peter’s call for readers to be careful about their expectations of the Bible is on point. Reading very old texts with expectations that they are like contemporary history or science books doesn’t make sense.


Enn’s doesn’t say much about the fallibility of human memory and that’s ok—his expertise lies elsewhere. He doesn’t ignore the fact of problem memories. Fortunately, even evangelical scholars like Craig Keener are aware of the limitations of memory established by psychological scientists like Elizabeth Loftus. The problem of memory is just another important factor to consider when reading ancient texts based on distant memories of events. The limitations of human memory do not detract from the obvious history of the Bible as an enduring source of inspiration unless readers insist that all the writers had perfect memories.

God’s Word

I am inclined to give Enns some slack for his comments in Chapter 7, which I noted above. Considering the Bible as God’s Word and then saying it is not the centre of faith is a bit of a stretch. So much depends on how one interprets the phrase “God’s Word.”

In one sense, the notion that the Bible is God Word suggests an untouchable sacred document that cannot be challenged. In fact, modern fundamentalist and evangelical Christians have elevated the Bible to a lofty place as if it were God. Of course, each Christian group reserves the right to interpret God’s Word for their group creating a foundation for doubt about what it might mean to say something is “God’s Word.”

I see Enns phrasing here as a way of taking the edge off his unfundamentalist approach to biblical interpretation. Given the first six chapters, Enns’ view of the Bible is not at all like the perspectives offered by Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals. And that is why Enn’s book is worth reading.


Enns, P. (2014). The Bible tells me so...why defending scripture has made us unable to read it. New York: Harper-Collins.


* The numbers in parentheses represent location numbers in the Kindle Edition.

About Peter Enns

Peter Enns has a PhD from Harvard University along with other degrees. His recent CV identifies his position as professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.

About the Reviewer

Geoffrey W. Sutton is a licensed psychologist with a PhD from the University of Missouri. He is the author of A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures.  He has worked as a clinician and research professor. Now he studies and writes about psychology and religion. He no longer provides clinical services.


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Monday, September 16, 2019

CHRISTOBIOGRAPHY: Memory History and the Reliability of the Gospels by Craig S. Keener - A Review



Author: Craig S. Keener

Reviewed by Geoffrey W. Sutton

It’s the second word in the title, memory, that first grabbed my attention. Then I noticed the word, reliability. Like many clinicians, I’ve administered many memory tests and discovered an incredible range of memory capacity. I've tested preschool children and senior adults. I used the best available tests covering a wide range of human memory. And, as a Christian thinker about integration, I wondered about the scant attention given to the role of memory and reliability in understanding the interplay between biblical texts and psychological science. So, I come to Keener’s latest cornucopia with considerable curiosity.

Craig S. Keener is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. Together, his works have sold over a million copies. He describes his scholarly vantage point as to the right of center. A scholar to the left of center would be someone like Marcus Borg.

This review is based on an academic review--I'll provide links to that below.

Christobiography is a lengthy tome of 743 pages! However, the text ends on page 501, and many pages contain footnotes that can cover nearly half a page. I read the work in five days and that includes making copious notes in the margins to help me remember key points to put in my review. I would note that Keener repeats many of his points and includes some details in the text that could be placed in an Appendix.

Christobiography consists of 17 chapters divided into five parts. At the risk of oversimplifying this considerable work, Keener demonstrates by reference to many examples that the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) are more like ancient biographies than like fictional works (that is, ancient novels). The gospels also share some features in common with ancient historical works. These examples help set the stage for contemporary readers to be reasonable in what they should expect when they read the gospels. Following are somethings you will find in the five parts.

Part 1: Biographies about Jesus
Keener examines the differences and similarities among documents written close to the time of the synoptic gospels, which he places in the middle to late first century. This is where he concludes that the gospels are more like ancient biographies than like ancient novels. More specifically, the gospels are similar to biographies of sages or philosophers, which contain many of their sayings.

Part 2: Biographies and History
Considering examples of early historical manuscripts, it seems reasonable to view the gospels as having some features in common with ancient works of history. That is, the gospel writers refer to historic events. And, there may be similarities between ancient biographies and ancient historical works. A key difference between ancient biographies and historical works is of course the focus on one main person.

In both histories and biographies, the ancient authors had some flexibility in writing about events. They may structure the content in different ways but readers in that era expected writers to present history in a fair and honest manner. The gospel of Luke is close to a history especially considering the companion work of Acts; however, Luke also has much in common with ancient biographies.

Part 3: Testing the Range of Deviation

Keener assumes his readers have an acquaintance with the variations among the gospel accounts in terms of details and chronologies. He demonstrates such text variations were not uncommon in ancient biographies by looking at three biographies of Otho (c 32-69 CE). A reliable biography is one that is true in the sense of honest reporting about events that really happened. I think this quote helps explains what Keener means by true: “True” did not mean that audiences would expect chronological precision, verbatim recall, or precision on minor points.” (p. 259).

Part 4: Two Objections to Gospels as Historical Biographies
In this section, Keener addresses two objections from skeptical religious scholars:

1. The miracle stories are unique and are not similar to other biographies.

2. The gospel of John is very different from the other three gospels.

Keener acknowledges the lack of ancient biographies of miracle workers before the gospels. He offers several arguments about the accounts of healings and exorcisms. For example, even today we find people in many cultures claim they have experienced or witnessed miraculous healings and exorcisms. To risk a paraphrase of Keener's argument, we can have confidence in the events reported as healings and exorcisms even if we do not accept the explanation that the reported results were caused by divine/supernatural intervention.

Keener provides a fairly detailed look at many similarities and differences between John’s gospel and the synoptics. He argues that despite John’s differences, the fourth gospel still appears to be an account of events similar to those expected in ancient biographies.

Part 5: Memories about Jesus: Memories before Memoirs
In part five, Keener demonstrates his acquaintance with relevant psychological studies documenting the fallibility of human memory and particularly the problems of eyewitness testimony, which is the likely source of information about the works and sayings of Jesus presented in the gospels.

Keener argues based on personal experience and psychological research that what people accurately remember and pass along in oral cultures and ordinary experience is the gist of an event. Dialogue may be paraphrased or reconstructed but is rarely verbatim. He notes an exception—anecdotes uttered by a respected teacher, such as Jesus, may very well be verbatim.

Keener invites readers to consider that Jesus' disciples, who had great respect for their teacher, might be more attentive to learning what Jesus taught than would be a casual observer.

He also notes that, in primarily oral cultures, students were expected to pass along a sage’s teachings as spoken. Ancient storytellers may have some liberty in retelling a historical event, but an ancient audience would not have tolerated variations on essential details. Once again, the gist remains the standard for stories in a reliable ancient biography.

Some Reflections

Keener’s Christobiography is relevant to clinicians and psychological scientists interested in the integration of faith and psychological science. I would suppose it is of interest to many religious scholars, including seminary students, but that is not my area of expertise.

Keener is clearly a conservative religious scholar, but I think he fairly addressed many of the reasonable questions one could ask about the reliability of the gospels. I agree with Keener that his arguments are not likely to convince highly skeptical scholars who are inclined to consider the gospels as works of fiction. I also agree with his belief that this book is not likely to be appreciated by those who insist that the gospel writers reported Jesus's words verbatim and that the variations in details such as chronology of events are of little consequence in a true account.

As a psychologist, I would like to have seen Keener use more primary sources when reporting memory research. He does cite Loftus, Nucci, and Hoffman (1998) but seems to rely on summary sources (e.g., McIver, 2012).

To psychologists, reliability implies consistency. Highly reliable measurement should yield similar scores. To the extent that repeated use of a test yields similar scores, we have a high degree of confidence in the results. Examining ancient works is a different task than testing, but if the "score" is analogous to the gist of an event and not the details, then it seems we can have a high degree of confidence in the gospels.

Psychologists also consider the validity of their measures. It's one thing to say a test usually produces similar scores (reliability), but it's quite another thing to say a test usually produces valid scores. Validity deals with purpose.

Reliability is a necessary but not sufficient condition for validity.

Therefore, I think we need another volume on the validities of the gospels. I use the term validities on purpose. Any use of a test or set of data (think gospel texts as data) may have a variety of valid uses, but there will be limits on what constitutes a valid use. Perhaps some Bible commentaries address the issue of validity. If you know of a scholarly work, that provides an overt link between reliability and validity, do comment.

Now, here's my comment on spiritual humility. Have you heard Christians pontificate about what people ought to believe and do in order to be a Christian? I dare say there are limits on flexibility on the concept, Christian. However, I venture to say that given the evidence of variations in the ancient words and phrases in the gospels and other biblical texts, it would be wise to be less arrogant in dictating what are mandatory beliefs and morals if such statements are based on a few ancient words or the interpretation of a phrase.


Keener, C. S. (2019). Christobiography: Memory history and the reliability of the gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans.

Loftus, E. F., Nucci, M., & Hoffman, H. (1998). Manufacturing memory. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 16, 63–75.

McIver, R. K. (2012). Eyewitnesses as Guarantors of the Accuracy of the Gospel Traditions in the Light of Psychological Research. Journal of Biblical Literature, 131(3), 529–546.

Sutton, G. W. (in press). [Review of the book Christobiography: Memory, history, and the reliability of the gospels by C. S. Keener]. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, XX, pp-pp. Accepted for publication September 16, 2019. See Researchgate or Academia


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