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It wasn't hard to have a soft spot for Steve Allen. He stood up against Hollywood's immorality, in spite of being neck deep involved with that institution, and wanted to encourage critical thinking. Regrettably, he did not apply that to his two studies of the Bible - titled, first, Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion and Morality, and second, More Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion and Morality, both published by Prometheus Press. At least you won't have trouble remembering the names if you want to buy both titles.
Allen admits up front that he's not a qualified Biblical scholar; but in this day and age when postmodernism would have the average person believing Michael Jordan over Enrico Fermi on matters of nuclear physics, simply on the basis of the former being a celebrity personage, it's more than a little irresponsible for someone like Allen to go on record this way on a topic he knew so little about.
What, though, does Allen claim to have going for him? He claimed to have done "painstaking reading, analysis, and consultation of sophisticated scholarship" - all right, what does that mean? As the text progresses, it becomes clear that "sophisticated", "the best Christian scholarship," etc. means, "those who agree with Steve Allen" - and that tends to be folks who regard Christianity with contempt, as becomes clear from Allen's "Select Bibliography."
You won't find much in the way of conservative scholarship there. You will find Allegro's sacred mushroom thesis, and Eisenman with his Dead Sea Scroll conspriacy theories; there's a few by G. A. Wells (Allen's not a Christ-myther, though); there's the Encyclopedia Brittannica; there's Homer Smith's Man and His Gods (as Glenn Miller has wryly noted, a kidney specialist).
There are also many 1800s freethinkers like Stanton and Ingersoll and Paine (the latter two are actually referred to as "well-qualified scholars") -- as well as Bultmann.
Conservative scholars...? Billy Graham makes an appearance, and that seems to be it.
It seems that all that Allen did was pick up whatever was most convenient (and agreeable) and then assumed he had done the job. It's not surprising to read from him that half of the manuscript of the first book was written in hotel rooms, with the Gideon Bible in the drawer as the primary source.
Much of the contents consist of "arguments by outrage" and we need not detain ourselves with those. Here is a sampling of the major factual errors:
- One that stucks out to me -- being that it is a topic of my interest -- is Allen's non-knowledge of the restraints and capabilities of oral tradition in the ancient world. As we have recounted in here, ancient memorial capabilities were far above our own (as indeed they had to be) and were supplemented by various tactics (i.e., poetic parallelism, strong visual demonstrations, etc. - and in the case of Jesus and the disciples especially, a paradigmitic teacher-disciple relationship) of the sort found today (in more trite forms) in memory seminars.
But Allen knows of none of this, and apparently presumed that his own personal preference to carry around a tape recorder to remember things was some sort of universal reflection. And so he remarks several times about "our fundamental weakness in remembering, unaided, over periods of time, and statements that consist of more than a few words" - which he takes as an indication that we can't be sure we have the accurate words of Jesus in the Gospels. Thus he says also that "if the memory of those humans who actually saw and heard Jesus of Nazareth is no better than that of the human race generally then it is unlikely that the New Testament record about him is totally accurate."
Allen doesn't tell us how "accurate" he thinks the record is, but the bad news for him is that ancient memory was a lot better than ours, generally speaking, and between that and the oral tradition-keeping processes we have described elsewhere, there is very little chance that defective memory could have played any role in loss of the true words of Jesus.
It's not entirely Allen's fault, though, since he quotes Robert Funk's uninformed notion that orality equates with a lack of certainty in transmission. The Jesus Seminar frequently takes a backwards glance when the matter of oral tradition comes up.
- Related to the above: "There was no method of shorthand description during that historical period, and, even if there had been, everyone who has ever been quoted, even by experienced professional journalists, is aware that totally accurate quotation at length is impossible."
Allen needed to learn a bit about scribes in the ancient world and their capabilities, in addition to the above. There was a method of shorthand available, and scribes were trained for accuracy in a way that our modern journalists would envy.
- I must, however, give kudos to Allen for shaming Christians as a whole for their general Biblical ignorance. He notes that in a poll only 58% of those asked could name the Gospels; one-third could not identify Nazareth (the city, not the heavy metal band), and a quarter could not identify Calvary.
- Reading Acts 1, Allen notes the choice of Matthias over Barsabbas as a replacement apostle, and then declares that it is "odd" that after Acts 1, "there is not a single further word in any Christian writing about either of these two men, a strange literary fate for an actual apostle."
Really? Why is it odd? Isn't this assuming that a) these men went on to do something worth recording, and finding that a problem b) in an era when there were not that many literate people to record things in the first place, c) there was not much in the way of resources to write long accounts, and d) what we have left from that era amounts to enough to fill a three-foot bookshelf?
There were also hundreds of Roman senators and officials who, in the Roman view of things, were far more important than some backwards Jews in Palestine, and yet we don't hear a single word about most of them in what we have left, and many more are mentioned only once by some historian and we never hear a peep out of them again.
By the same token, other members of the Twelve disappear just as quickly...after Acts 1:13, Thomas, Simon the Zealot, and others are a mere memory.
And likewise elsewhere - for example, regarding God's demand upon his people to perform circumcision, aside from pulling up a totally off-the-wall sociological explanation that it was a custom derived from castration, Allen comments: "When one considers how many important moral questions the Lord might have taken upon this most auspicious of occasions, the choice to require a minor physical operation seems incredible."
Indeed? What moral questions, exactly, and what makes one think that anyone would have paid attention in the first place? And what about having respect for ancient peoples who saw extreme significance in this sort of rite? Allen seems to have unlimited confidence in the human capacity to get down to brass tacks.
- Allen notes Matthew 5:13 -- "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?" Allen found this puzzling, so he wrote to various salt companies and asked them whether salt ever lost its flavor. They assured him that it didn't, so Allen put down Jesus here for an error.
Rather than writing to salt companies, Allen should have picked up a commentary or a Greek concordance. The word here is moraino, meaning "to become insipid". In the context of this verse, it refers to believers being the "salt" of the world. Now believers themselves won't lose their "saltiness" except in one way - by becoming like the world. Hence, if Allen wanted to know how salt "loses" its savor, the answer is by contamination.
Salt of the Sea
In addition, Dead Sea salt, unlike our modern, refined table salt, does lose its flavor. A reader noted that the explanation may be that "ancient 'salt' wasn't pure sodium chloride, but NaCl mixed with other rock and mineral matter; if it was allowed to get moist, the NaCl would dissolve out and leave behind a pile of tasteless dirt. Thus, in order for the salt to preserve its savor, 'the world' had to be kept out of it."
It is also noteworthy that in context, this isn't salt used for consumption in the first place. Malina and Rohrbaugh note [Social-Science Commentary, 50] that the "earth" here alludes to an earthen oven outside the house which was used to bake, and had a dung heap nearby; the dung was used as fuel and was salted to use as a catalyst to make the dung burn. The reference is to salt that is so exhausted that it no longer makes the dung burn -- not to how tasty the salt is.
- Daniel chapter 7 and visions of that sort are described as a "strikingly poor method of conveying messages from God to man." Not to ancient peoples in oral-based cultures, not at all.
- And, of course, a litany of all the usual arguments, which we and others have covered in a variety of essays on this page:
Allen was an excellent enterainer -- but as a Biblical critic, he didn't get the job done.