Lex Talionis: Misrepresentation for “Misrepresentation”

Matt Flannagan has taken to gloating in the fact that in my last post I made a few open and happy concessions to his criticisms, while at the same time he refuses to acknowledge that the vast majority of his criticisms of me were not only uncharitable, but fundamentally wrong. Ignoring his own misrepresentations of me, Matt is now claiming that I misrepresent Paul Copan when I critique his use of secondary sources on the issue of lex talionis in Israel and the broader ancient Near East. In actual fact, it’s Copan that misrepresents himself, and Matt knows this, as I’ll demonstrate toward the end of this post.

In my most recent post, responding to Matt Flannagan’s shenanigans, I said:

My critique was that Copan argued that Israel’s talionis laws were figurative, but that Babylonian talionis laws were morally inferior because of their brutality. But what Copan obfuscated here was that the same scholarly sources he used to argue that Israel’s talionic laws were not meant literally also argue that Babylon’s talionic laws were not meant literally. This undermines his incessant attempt to portray Babylon and other ANE cultures as far and away more brutal than Israel.

Matt says that I misrepresent Copan, because Copan does in fact mention that his scholarly sources say that other ANE talionic laws were not meant literally. Matt lists what he thinks are my misrepresentations of Copan:

First, that Copan holds *both* that Israel’s laws were figurative, and also the ANE laws were literal and brutal. . . . Now in fact the first point here is false, and is evident from the text of is God a Moral Monster itself. He is what Copan actually says

One further matter: We’ve seen that the various ANE laws we’ve explored are far more harsh in comparison to Israel’s laws. Even so, a range of scholars argue that punishments in the Mosaic Law—and even in various ANE law codes—are less fierce in actual practice…. One could cite other scholars such as Raymond Westbrook, Jacob Finkelstein, and Joseph Sprinkle, who readily concur with this assessment. So if we take the severe OT punishments literally, we observe that the Mosaic Law is far less strict than other ANE law codes. If, on the other hand, we follow these scholars who take the OT’s capital punishment laws as allowing for a “ransom” payment instead (with the exception of premeditated murder), then this opens up a dramatically new perspective on these apparently severe punishments.

Note Copan here does not claim what Thom says, he does not “obfuscate” that the same scholarly sources he used to argue that Israel’s talionic laws were not meant literally also argue that Babylon’s talionic laws were not meant literally. In fact he explictly makes this clear he states . “, a range of scholars argue that punishments in the Mosaic Law—and even in various ANE law codes—are less fierce in actual practice.” Far from hiding that they say this about ANE law codes he openly states it is the case.

Actually, yes this is an obfuscation, and I’ll explain why. But first, Matt ignores what I wrote in my original review. I point out that Paul concedes that his sources say other ANE laws were figurative, but critique him for not realizing this undermines his argument that Israel was superior because the other ANE laws were brutal. Here’s what I wrote in my original review:

Copan continues to claim, repeatedly, such things as that the “dreadful” laws in the Code of Hammurabi and other ancient Near Eastern codes are distinguished by the brutality of their punishments, in contrast to the reserved punishments in the Law of Moses (94).

Of course, in a quick parenthetical note he concedes this, pointing out that “scholars” argue that the brutal-sounding laws of the ancient Near Eastern legislation were less brutal in actual practice (95). So he concedes that the same sources he’s using to argue that Israel’s laws were hyperbolic also make the same case for the other ancient Near Eastern codes, yet not once does he acknowledge that this undermines his whole case (made throughout several chapters) that the barbarity of the Mosaic laws is excusable because it’s so much better than the barbarity of the other codes. If he’s conceding that it’s all metaphorical, then the contrast is really an illusion. [Is God a Moral Compromiser?, p. 47.]

So Matt thinks Copan’s statement is clear, and that I am wrong to call it an obfuscation. I beg to differ. Copan mentions this only once, here, in a quick parenthetical note. That’s obfuscation enough, given that for several chapters he has been arguing that Babylon’s laws were inferior based on a literal reading of them. Second, it is further an obfuscation because he doesn’t name the specific legal codes in his concession. All he says is, “and even in various ANE law codes.” Here’s the question: which ANE law codes? He doesn’t identify which specific ANE law codes Westbrook, Sprinkle and Finkelstein are talking about. He doesn’t say that it applies to the Code of Hammurabi which he has been portraying at great length as viciously brutal, based on a literal reading. The reader is left in the dark here. Maybe Sprinkle et al. say that Hammurabi was literal, but some other “various ANE law codes” were figurative. So yes, Paul obfuscated what his scholars were saying, and, as I pointed out in my original review, “not once does he acknowledge that this undermines his whole case (made throughout several chapters) that the barbarity of the Mosaic laws is excusable because it’s so much better than the barbarity of the other codes.”

Next, Matt writes:

Nor does he [Copan] claim both that Israel’s laws are figurative and the ANE ones are literally harsh he [sic] in the last paragraph. That *if* we take them literally they are more harsh that Isreals and *on the other hand* if we take them figuratively, we have a new ( and hence different) perspective.

Now this is what Matt’s argument is, and this may have been what Copan intended to write, but it is not in fact what Copan wrote. We’ll quote Copan again:

So if we take the severe OT punishments literally, we observe that the Mosaic Law is far less strict than other ANE law codes. If, on the other hand, we follow these scholars who take the OT’s capital punishment laws as allowing for a “ransom” payment instead (with the exception of premeditated murder), then this opens up a dramatically new perspective on these apparently severe punishments.

Note here that Copan does not say, “If, on the other hand, we follow these scholars who take the ANE’s capital punishment laws as allowing for a ‘ransom’ payment instead . . . then this opens up a dramatically new perspective on these apparently severe punishments.” What he says is, “If, on the other hand, we follow these scholars who take the OT’s capital punishment laws . . .” etc. Copan never discusses what this “dramatically new perspective” would be if we apply it to the other ANE legal codes. He only ever presents them as barbaric based upon a literal reading. This is an obfuscation. Now, I’ll grant that it may have been unintentional. But it’s an obfuscation nonetheless, and one that will seriously mislead almost any reader who isn’t already familiar with the scholarly discussions.

Matt continues:

Third, he claims I have not addressed this point. Fourth he says this is his most salient point. . . . Moreover, the link I provide above from Randall Rauser’s blog shows that Thom’s claim that I have not addressed his “most salient point is false[.]” on this thread I pointed out to Thom that he misrepresented Paul’s argument.

Matt has a very selective memory. I’ll show why in a moment, but first we’ll let Matt continue his revisionist historical narrative:

I said explictly that “Paul suggested the non literal reading as an alternative perspective to his main line of argument which you mention’s, he was not intending both to be taken together conjuctively but disjunctively.” And that it should be read as a “a disjunct, if you read it literally then X on the other hand if you read it non literally then Z.” Further Thom’s response shows he was aware of this response, in fact he states that he was “happy to be corrected”

I document misrepresentations1. [sic] Thom responds by creating several new ones. He responds by citing a misrepresentation of Paul’s work, one he was told was a misrepresentation some time ago and tells his readers that I have not addressed this argument, when in fact I did and he acknowledged it months ago.

First, no, Matt ignored the salient issue in his recent post, knowing full well (or so I thought) that he had conceded that Copan’s argument wasn’t properly presented in Copan’s book. Matt then cites a congenial discussion we had had about this back in June (in this comment thread). But his memory is very selective. Once again, Matt’s hard-on for painting me as incompetent just blows up in his own face.

Here are the relevant comments from the thread:

Thom Stark says:
Wednesday, June 22, 2011 at 10:57pm

The context was one where I was critiquing Copan for maligning other ancient Near Eastern law codes as barbaric, while defending Israel’s barbaric laws with the argument that they weren’t meant to be taken literally. I pointed out that the same scholars Copan cites who argue that Israel’s laws were not always meant to be taken literally also made the same argument for the ancient Near Eastern laws that Copan was maligning by contrast to Israel.

 

Matt Flannagan says:
Thursday, June 23, 2011 at 1:06am

I don’t have Paul’s book to hand, but I think this is a misunderstanding of his argument. From memory Paul suggested the non literal reading as analternative perspective to his main line of argument which you mention’s, he was not intending both to be taken together conjuctively but disjunctively.

I suspect this is the case , because after Paul had finished the main draft we corresponded over this very issue and he added those references afterword’s.

 

Thom Stark says:
Thursday, June 23, 2011 at 1:11am

That may be but that wasn’t at all clear in his presentation. I’m happy to be corrected.

 

Matt Flannagan says:
Thursday, June 23, 2011 at 1:19am

Thom, it may well have been in the presentation. The same thought occurred to me when I read it as you made.

That said, Westbrook et al do think these laws ironically and rhetorically express principles and one might see the differences between the code of Hammurabi and the Mosaic code as expressing different moral sensibilities, so Paul could perhaps make the point consistently if this could be shown.

So, the absent-minded philosopher is now stating that he already “corrected” my “misrepresentation” of Copan back in June, but in actual fact, back in June, Matt conceded that Copan had misrepresented his own argument, and not only that, Matt stated that he realized this on his own when he read Copan’s book! Copan may well have intended to argue one thing, something that he and Matt discussed in private, but in his book, he did not make the argument consistently. Hence, Matt said in June, “so Paul could perhaps make the point consistently if this could be shown.” In other words, Paul didn’t make the argument necessary in order to make his presentation of the data consistent. Matt wants to criticize me for not addressing what was in Copan’s head; but in a book review, I can only critique what’s in the book, and as Matt has conceded, the necessary arguments to make Copan’s presentation of the data consistent were not in the book. As for the point about Copan presenting two disjunctive alternatives, I already responded point by point to Copan’s attempt to show that Israel’s laws were superior to other ANE codes based upon a literal reading. The picture Copan paints just doesn’t hold up. As I showed, Israel’s laws were better in some cases, and much worse in other cases. Moreover, most of the laws of Israel that Copan argued were “more humane” were not “humane” at all; just perhaps slightly less inhumane. They’re inhumane nonetheless. You don’t look at two dictators and, pointing out that one was slightly less violent than another, conclude that one dictator was “morally superior” to the other. That’s just nuts.

That’s why I’m justified when I say that Matt had not addressed the most salient point of my criticism of Copan on lex talionis in his recent series of comments (as opposed to a discussion buried deep in an obscure comment thread on a blog that is neither Matt’s nor my own). See, Matt and I discussed this, and it was my impression, based on the actual content of the discussion, that Matt had conceded that Copan didn’t present his argument properly. Not only did he agree with my assessment, he stated that that was his own assessment after reading Copan’s book. Matt knew what Copan meant to say, but we (the outer circle) didn’t know what Copan meant to say, because Copan didn’t say what he meant to say. He said something else. My criticism of the argument in his book was perfectly valid, and remains so, until Copan fixes his argument in the second edition. Then I’ll critique his new argument, because it’s wrongheaded too. And the reason I recently stated that Matt hasn’t addressed my most salient criticism on this issue is because our June discussion was not appearing in his recent comments on the issue. So Matt thinks the June discussion is evidence that I’m obfuscating the facts. The reality is, as we’ve come to expect by now, quite the contrary.

For the record, I really don’t have much vested interest in this whole lex talionis argument. Sprinkle’s arguments for a non-literal reading of the talionis laws appear to me to be very weak. And there’s a big difference, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere and before (to Matt I think), between an ancient law being intended literally and an ancient law being applied literally. Intention and application are two different things. Whether they applied the laws literally in practice is a separate issue from whether they were intended literally. The evidence in favor of a less-strict application of these laws in the ancient world is ample. But the arguments in favor of a non-literal intention in the written code itself are very weak. That said, again, I really don’t care too much about this issue. There are much bigger problems with Copan’s book. I’m just responding here to show that Matt’s latest attempt to portray me as dishonest is, well, dishonest. Oh, and ever so tedious.

Why does Matt keep doing this to himself? Because he has a warfare mentality. Just look at his website. He and his wife (and her leg) are ready, with their backs up against the wall, to put a bullet into anybody who challenges them. Matt is so invested in this “Thom’s-scholarship-can’t-be-trusted” meme, he’s committing himself to a senseless battle to the death. Of course, if his pistol continues to misfire like this, he’s only going to be the death of himself. Up here in Texas, however, I’m just enjoying the fireworks. I have no emotional investment in this nonsense. I am a little concerned for Matt though, in all seriousness. This can’t be good for his blood pressure.

  1. Most of which I refuted. [BACK]

5 thoughts on “Lex Talionis: Misrepresentation for “Misrepresentation”

  1. I love the Avengers too but I wouldn’t seek to pose like them on a religious debate blog, nor use a gun-based insignia to represent myself. Makes me recall J. P. Holding’s flatearthery video in which he depicts various cartoon characters physically pummeling “fundy atheists.” And both Matt and J.P. are contributors to the same journal, The Christian Research Journal [sic].

  2. Matthew Flannagan has recently suggested we consider that the trial of ordeal in Numbers 5 is a literal carrying out of lex talionis, stating the the punishment for the wife’s adultery is damage to her gential/womb via the cursed concoction that priest has her imbibe.  Does that sound reasonable?  (It makes me feel like he’s trying to have it multiple ways.)  Also, does the curse involve a miscarriage, or bestowing the wife with a miscarrying womb?  A few of my translations say miscarry and miscarrying womb and Matthew says miscarry is not part of the curse.  I enjoy Thom Stark’s book response to Paul Copan’s book, and he discusses Numbers 5 around pages 107-111, but I could glean a clear answer to my specific question.

    I certainly don’t want to take up too much of anyone’s time, but might someone comment or suggest a resource that discusses if the curse involves a miscarriage or a miscarrying womb?  In particular, Matthew Flannagan suggested the Hebrew translated as “abdomen swell and thigh fall out” (the immediate response to drinking the concoction in Numbers 5) is not referring to miscarriage, which could make sense, but the latter verse still suggests a “miscarrying womb” is additionally part of the curse.

  3. Sorry, David. I intended to reply to this immediately, but got distracted and forgot. Yeah, it doesn’t speak to the question of whether a woman might be pregnant while undergoing the ordeal, but the idea, yes, is that she would be barren. Whether that’s a “miscarrying womb” or just an inability to conceive, I don’t know. Either way, it’s a harsh, albeit mythological, punishment. 

  4. Thanks so much.  (Continued good luck with the film!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>