Responding to Criticisms of My Copan Review

Matt Flannagan continues to try to discredit me by avoiding all the substance and most salient points of my arguments and focusing on what he thinks are contradictions in my writing or misuses of scholarship. No concessions have been made yet, however, to all of the abuses of scholarship I pointed out in Copan’s book. I recently responded to one sorry, failed attempt of Matt’s to show that I contradict myself. Nonetheless, Matt has actually made a few valid criticisms this time. I’m happy to concede them, as I will below. But for the most part, what Matt is doing is trying to discredit me while either unintentionally missing or intentionally ignoring the central points of my arguments. First, I’ll make some concessions to Matt, partly in the hopes that Matt will learn from my example and start owning up to all the abuses of scholarship and straw man arguments he himself is responsible for.

Lex Talionis

The most solid criticism Matt makes has to do with Sprinkle’s article on lex talionis. Here is Matt’s post on the matter, beginning with quotes from me:

“Copan will later cite Joseph Sprinkle in another context (alt-hough the pages he cites do not pertain to the point in support of which he was citing Sprinkle), who argues that lex talionis is not meant to be taken literally. Sprinkle has three arguments that lex talionis was not literal:

(1) We have already dealt with Exod 21:18-19. As I’ve shown, no permanent injury is in view in Exod 21:18-19, therefore, lex talionis does not apply. Moreover, it is important to note that the lex talionis formula does not even appear in this case (see quota-tion above).

(2) He notes that the penalty for permanent injury to a slave does not require “eye for eye” but rather the release of the slave. We’ll discuss this shortly in relation to Copan’s claim (quoted above) that Israel is distinct from Hammurabi’s code because Hammurabi’s code only requires lex talionis for aristocratic peers.

(3) Sprinkle argues that the lex talionis prescribed in Exod 21:22-25 which refers, in Sprinkle’s words, to “the case of acci-dental killing of a pregnant woman” would be, Sprinkle argues, “in contradiction with the principle expressed in Exod 21:13-14, which says that accidental manslaughter is not a capital offense.”

Actually if you read, the original article. Sprinkle himself specifically mention’ four separate arguments not three, and he also adds several others. Moreover the first two Stark attribute to him Sprinkle includes together in the first argument. This means Stark has in fact ignored most of Sprinkle’s arguments and several of the texts mentioned in these arguments. Of course his readers will not have ( as I have) read Sprinkle so they won’t know this. Moreover, when Stark proceeds to criticise Sprinkle’s third ( actually his second) argument he states:

But there are several problems with this argument. First, the woman is not killed in Exod 21:22-25. Let’s look:

When men who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage [or possibly, though doubtfully, a premature birth; literally, a “coming forth”] and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

The text clearly says that the woman is injured,” Sprinkle must be assuming that because “life for life” is included in the list of retributive punishments, a killing is involved.” Stark p 110

This is bizzare, the word “Injured” is an English word, the Hebrew word is “ason” far from “clearly meaning” injured its meaning is disputed by scholars and it is used only a few times in the bible making its exact sense unclear and in fact in the very next section of the article Sprinkle goes into the scholarly debate over its meaning, engaging with different interpretations. Including several that argue the word means “kill”. Stark however simply asserts that Sprinkle assumes a meaning that is clearly false because the English word “injured” is used in the translation he cites. Is that what you consider a good summary of what scholars are writing?

Stark’s second response is cite Leviticus 24:20, but Sprinkle in fact discusses this very passage in the section Stark’s citing from and responds to this objection. Stark simply ignores his response and repeats the original objection.

All right. A number of criticisms have been made here. Not all are valid. First, I don’t list all four of Sprinkle’s arguments because to my mind his third and fourth arguments are closely related and I was just trying to offer a concise summary. So that’s no where near as big of an issue as Matt is making it out to be.

Now, Matt writes, “Stark’s second response is cite [sic] Leviticus 24:20, but Sprinkle in fact discusses this very passage in the section Stark’s citing from and responds to this objection. Stark simply ignores his response and repeats the original objection.”

Yes, Matt is correct that I ignored Sprinkle’s discussion of Lev 24:20. The reasons for that are twofold: (1) I was trying to be as concise as possible, and (2) Sprinkle’s arguments for why Lev 24:20 should not be read literally are very bad. But since Matt thinks it’s a defect in my scholarship that I ignored them, I’ll address them here.

Here’s what Lev 24:19-20 says: “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.” Sprinkle argues that the talionis law here need not be taken literally for three reasons:

First, Sprinkle writes, “This prima facie seems to imply literal talion, but such language does not do so necessarily. Lev 24:17-18 applies the principle of ‘life for life’ to cover not only homicide, but also the destruction of a beast. In the case of an animal monetary substitution surely would have been acceptable.”

There are a number of problems with this argument. First, “life for life” in 24:18 does not mean, “if you or your beast kill a beast, you will be killed,” or even, “if you or your beast kill a beast, your beast will be killed.” “Life for life” here means, “replace the life you took with another.” This is very clear from verse 18 itself. “Shall make restitution for it” interprets “life for life.” Verse 21 makes this plain again: “One who kills an animal shall make restitution for it.” But note that it goes on to say, “But one who kills a human being shall be put to death.” “Life for life” in verse 18 does not refer to monetary compensation; it refers to the replacement of a dead beast with another. My argument in the review was that when monetary compensation is involved, money is always mentioned. Here no money is mentioned. Rather, if you kill a man’s beast, you forfeit one of your own to him. The point is that the passage itself interprets “life for life” expressly as “restitution.” But that doesn’t mean it should or could be interpreted that way in any old talionis case. How do you “make restitution” for a man’s eye? You can’t. Thus, the penalty is a literal talionis. But where restitution can be made, restitution is to be made. You can replace a man’s beast; you can’t give him his eye back.

Sprinkle’s second argument is even worse: “In addition, literal sounding language is not always literal.” (So far, that’s a no-brainer.) “As Ibn Ezra pointed out, Samson in Judg 15:11 says, ‘as they have done to me, so I did to them,’ yet he had not done exactly what the Philistines had done to him, for they had burned to death his wife and father-in-law (Judg 15:6), but he simply slaughtered a great many of them (Judg 15:8). In a similar way,” Sprinkle says, “in Lev 24:20, the ‘injury which he inflicted upon another’ could be ‘inflicted on him’ not by exact reduplication of the injury, but figuratively through a ransom which served as a substitute for that injury.”

Are you able to see why I didn’t bother to address Sprinkle’s arguments? This one is horrible. First, it should be noted that the book of Judges is not legal material; it is a narrative. Samson is not writing down law; he’s boasting. Legal material is meant to be precise. The boasting of a warrior, well, isn’t.  Second, and more importantly, Sprinkle is making an incredibly thin argument. The Philistines killed Samson’s wife and father-in-law. In return, Samson slaughtered a bunch of Philistines, and then said, “As they have done to me, so I did to them.” Sprinkle says, Ah, but not down to the last detail! Give us a break. Besides the fact that Samson isn’t claiming to have employed the lex talionis, the reality is, yes, he did in fact do to them what they did to him. They killed his people, so he killed theirs. Life for life. So perhaps that’s why I ignored Sprinkle’s argument in the interest of getting on with reality.

Third and finally, Sprinkle argues that “in Deut 19:15-21, the so-called lex talionis is applied to the case of a false witness, with the judgment that whatever verdict would have been carried out against the falsely accused should be carried out against the false witness. Here the so-called talionic formula ‘life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot’ is not applied literally, but merely means that the punishment varies with the severity of the accusation.”

Well, this is hogwash. This text actually (and obviously) reinforces a literal reading of the talionis law. The clear point made here is that whatever punishment would have been given to the innocent man were he convicted should instead be given to the false witness. The conclusion, “Show no mercy: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,” is not figurative. It’s meant to say, “Whatever the punishment, apply it strictly.” The verse just prior says, “The rest shall hear and be afraid, and a crime such as this [bearing false witness] shall never again be committed among you.” So what are we to think? That a false witness can pay monetary compensation and then the rest of Israel “shall hear and be afraid”? Hardly. The point of the strict application of the talionic law is to incite fear in order to prevent further infractions.

So, Matt has tried to show that I was being dishonest by not dealing with Sprinkle’s arguments when I cited Lev 24:20 against his figurative interpretation of talionis. In actual fact, I was probably just feeling generous. No. In reality, I was just trying to make my summary of Sprinkle, as well as my rebuttals, concise. Scholars ignore non-persuasive arguments all the time when there are bigger fish to fry. But Matt doesn’t seem to be interested in the bigger fish.

Now, Matt’s third criticism of my treatment of Sprinkle is valid. He notes that I take for granted the translation of “injured” as “injured,” and do not discuss Sprinkle’s extended discussion of the translation issues of this word. That’s a valid point, and I should have done so. The omission was entirely unintentional. But Matt is making a mountain out of a molehill here, since I do in fact grant for purposes of discussion the position that Sprinkle ends up taking on that translation issue, and proceed to mount an argument against Sprinkle’s position, even given that reading of the text. It’s really a non-issue, on a minor point. The omission on my part was a mistake, but it doesn’t really affect the argument I made much if at all.

But in all of this, Matt ignores the most salient point of my critique of Copan on talionis. 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.


Hyperbolic Conquest: The Case of Douglas Earl

Now we’ll move to Matt’s criticisms of my use of sources on the issue of hyperbolic language in the conquest narratives. First, my use of Evangelical scholar Douglas Earl. Matt’s post on this is as follow:

Thom Stark writes

“The hyperbolists say that, since the author wasn’t stupid, the contradictions indicate that the language of total destruction is not to be taken literally. If it says in one part of the book that an entire population was killed, but that population is still alive later on, then it is clear that the earlier statement was hyperbolic in nature, not to be taken literally”

In response he appeals to Douglas Earl ,

“Earl argues that the book of Joshua is composite in nature. The first half of the book, chapters 1-12, was written by the Deuteronomistic historian, but chapters 13-22 were written by the Priestly writer. Chapter 23 returns again to the concerns of the Deuteronomistic historian, and according to Earl, chapter 24 (the final chapter) represents a more generic summary. If Earl is correct that Joshua is two-part composite, that sufficiently explains the contradictions between the summaries of military victories. The latter half of Joshua does not contradict the former in order to provide a cue to read the earlier statements as hyperbolic; they are contradictory because they represent two different sources with two different agendas.”

Interestingly, this is what Douglas Earl says about this [in his] forthcoming article Holy War and herem: A Biblical Theology of herem.

“Finally, there are indicators within the narrative of Joshua that would suggest that it is not appropriate to take Joshua as a ‘factual history’ in genre. For example, the location of Rahab’s house in the city wall (Josh 2) does not sit easily with the report of the collapse of the wall (Josh 6), an observation that has indeed troubled rabbis through the centuries. Moreover, portrayals of complete conquest (Josh 10:40-42; 11:16, 23) do not sit well with reports of incomplete conquest (Josh 15:63, 16:10 and 17:13) within the book. One could regard these as reflecting what Origen described as ‘stumbling blocks’ within the text of Scripture that point one away from a ‘literal’ reading towards a ‘spiritual’ reading, an approach that I am seeking to reconstrue here in terms of symbolic interpretation.(emphasis mine)”

It seems that Douglas Earl does consider the difference between the latter half of Joshua and the earlier part. Do “provide a clue” to the reader that the text is not to be read literally.

No, Matt. Earl is advocating a “spiritual” reading, or a “symbolic interpretation.” He’s taking his cues from Origen, an allegorist. Earl himself knows that the contradiction over Rahab’s house is due to different sources, as he argues is the case with the contradictions about the totality of the genocide. He’s not arguing that this is how the texts would have been intended by their authors or redactors. He’s not arguing that this is how the texts would have been read by ancient Jews. He’s arguing that this is how we should read the text as Christians. I know this is what he’s arguing because I’ve read (and reviewed) his book, The Joshua Delusion?. Moreover, the fact that the rabbis have been, as Earl says, “troubled through the centuries” about these contradictions proves my point. The rabbis were trying to reconcile historical contradictions. But even granting for purposes of discussion that Earl is arguing what Matt wants to argue (and I don’t think he is, and if he is, he’s wrong to do so), I can hardly be expected to have taken into account a paper of Earl’s that is still forthcoming in my review of Copan’s book from early this year.


Hyperbolic Conquest: The Case of Lawson Younger

Now, Matt criticizes me for my use of Lawson Younger on the same issue. Matt writes:

Thom Stark writes

“Second, Copan keeps insisting that “Joshua” wasn’t being de-ceptive when “he” painted a portrait of total annihilation. How does Copan know this? How does Copan pretend to know that the author of this portion of Joshua didn’t intend for the rhetoric to be believed? The only thing Copan can do here is conflate the sources in Joshua and claim that the contradictions should direct us to read the picture of total annihilation as hyperbole. “

Thom Stark referring to Paul Copan’s contention that Joshua 1-11 does not contradict the account of the conquest in Judges because the former is hyperbolic and not intended to be read literally.

“But Copan can’t know that the author wasn’t being deceptive, or that the author wasn’t ntentionally painting a portrait of total annihilation to serve an ideological agenda. And here Copan’s scholarly source, Lawson Younger, is very instructive. Younger rightly iden-tifies the motivation for such a portrait:

‘The historical narrative in which Joshua 9-12 is cast utilizes a common transmission code observa-ble in numerous ancient Near Eastern conquest ac-counts, employing the same ideology. [T]he ideology which lies behind the text of Joshua is one like that underlying other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts—namely, imperialistic.’

Younger writes that under this imperialistic ideology, ‘victory must be described in black and white terms since there is only a ‘them’ vs. ‘us’ relationship.’64 Regarding the ideology underlying the ancient Near Eastern warfare texts, Younger says that it is about the “‘establishment’ of the particular culture, i.e., in the elite power structures of the culture,” and he concludes that this is what’s going on in Joshua 9-12 as well. Copan wants to read the exaggerated rhetoric… Exaggerated warfare rhetoric needs to be understood as an expression of imperial power, and it emphatically cannot be taken for granted that the populace understood this rhetoric to be hyperbolic.”

Thom Stark , citing the conclusion from Lawson Younger’s “ Ancient Near Eastern Conquest” p 254 to refute Paul Copan’s claim.

Matt then quotes Lawson Younger to show that I abused him as a source:

“When the figurative nature of the account is considered, there really are no grounds for concluding that Judges 1 presents a different view of the conquest from that of Joshua or that it must be an older account. If scholars had realised the hyperbolic nature of the account in Joshua… All of this is unnecessary if one recognises the syntagm is hyperbolic. The use of sterotyped syntagms in the narrative of Joshua 10-12 builds an interative scheme. Thus the account is stimulated or synthetic, it is not mean to be interpreted in a wooden, literal sense.”

Here Lawson Younger, in “Ancient Near Eastern Conquest Accounts, p 246-247, argues that the account in Joshua 10 to 11 does not contradict judges because his study has shown it is figurative and hyperbolic and not meant to be interpreted literally.

All right. Several things needs to be said here. First, Matt is avoiding all of the salient issues here opting rather to try to discredit me. For instance, Copan argues that the ancient readers of Joshua would have understood the language as hyperbolic. But that’s not Younger’s argument. As I pointed out, Younger’s argument contradicts that picture. It is imperialistic propaganda. Moreover, I pointed out numerous instances where Younger’s more accurate explanation of the hyperbolic language contradicts Copan’s argument. For instance, Younger understands that despite exaggeration, women and children were actually killed in these battles. Moreover, as I pointed out, Younger says (rightly) that an integral element of herem warfare is the literal slaughter of noncombatants. Yet Copan tries to argue (referring loosely to Younger’s discussion of ANE hyperbole) that noncombatants need not be killed in herem warfare. I showed from all of the primary literature, and from Younger, that Copan is wrong on this point. Matt hasn’t responded to any of the substance of my arguments.

Now, directly addressing the quote from Younger that Matt brings up. Yes, I read this when I read Younger. No, I did not cite it or refer to it. But I did mount several arguments against Younger’s conclusion; I just did so without mentioning him (and not for any reason other than that it didn’t occur to me I needed to, since I was in fact making the necessary arguments–none of which Copan or Flannagan have responded to). I concede that I should have included a footnote or dealt with this quote from Younger somewhere; I’ll own up to that. But what really matters is that I mounted copious arguments against Younger’s conclusion. The fact is, Younger’s conclusion does not properly follow from the data he thinks supports it. He is right on the quotes I pulled, but I think he is wrong in the quote Matt pulled. Here’s the quote again for good measure:

When the figurative nature of the account is considered, there really are no grounds for concluding that Judges 1 presents a different view of the conquest from that of Joshua or that it must be an older account. If scholars had realised the hyperbolic nature of the account in Joshua… All of this is unnecessary if one recognises the syntagm is hyperbolic. The use of sterotyped syntagms in the narrative of Joshua 10-12 builds an interative scheme. Thus the account is stimulated or synthetic, it is not mean to be interpreted in a wooden, literal sense.

Younger confuses the issue. The issue isn’t over a “literal, wooden” interpretation. He got it right the first time. The portrait of total annihilation serves an ideological purpose and it is meant to be taken seriously, even dreadfully, not “figuratively,” by the intended audience, unless Younger supposes the intended audience is a group of astute literary critics, rather than an illiterate populace. The portions of Younger I quoted are right. The Younger quote Matt provides is wrong. The evidence Younger provides does not support the conclusion that Matt favors. The primary ANE material that Younger discusses shows clearly that the conquest accounts are meant to be taken seriously. As I pointed out, in one of the more fantastic ones, the narrator swears by his god that what he’s saying is the truth of how it happened. Propagandistic exaggeration is one thing; “figurative” semi-history is quite another. I’ve argued at great length that there are no grounds for the conclusion that Younger comes to at the end. But it’s the conclusion we’d expect to find in monograph written by a scholar employed by an evangelical institution.

But Matt isn’t engaging the substance of my arguments. He’s just trying to discredit me. It’s a transparent tactic.



Finally, Matt shows that I contradict myself on the question of where “adultery” appears in the legal corpora. Here’s what Matt writes:

[Thom Stark writes]

“Second, Copan is mixing categories here. The prohibitions of murder, adultery, and theft appear in the Decalogue, not in the purity codes. But when we look at the purity codes, what do we see? What else is identified there as an abomination? Just three verses before the prohibition of a male having sexual relations with another male, there is the prohibition of having sexual relations with a woman during her menstrual period. This too is identified as an “abomination” with the same punishment: being “cut off from the people.”

Thom Stark claiming Paul Copan has misread Leviticus 18 by suggesting it contains a prohibition of adultery. (p 25)

“But this is yet another obfuscation. First, in the Decalogue, no specific punishment is prescribed for any of the prohibited of-fenses. But when we turn to Leviticus 18, adultery (“with your kinsman’s wife,” Lev 18:20) is listed among the sexual prohibitions that are expressly condemned because of their association with the Canaanite peoples. “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves” (Lev 18:24).”

Thom Stark, (p 102) citing Leviticus 18 suggesting Paul is engaging in obfuscation, in part because Leviticus 18 contains a prohibition of adultery.

OK. He got me. I wrongly stated on p. 25 that “adultery” doesn’t appear in the purity codes. Of course, he got me on a technicality, which is about all he can do. What I meant of course was that “murder, adultery, and theft” as a group appear not in the purity codes but the decalogue. Yes, “adultery” does appear in the list of sexual prohibitions, so yes, I was technically wrong. But Matt hasn’t scored any real points here; this is just juvenile (or just very confused). My points all stand (and Matt hasn’t addressed any of them). Murder and theft don’t appear in the purity codes, so Copan shouldn’t have brought them up. But that was really just a segue into my discussion of the sexual prohibitions in which, alongside the prohibition against homosexuality, is a prohibition against sleeping with one’s wife during her menstruation period. Matt is harping on a segue, and ignoring the actual arguments. Furthermore, my point stands that nowhere in the Mosaic code are the dietary prohibitions presented as temporary. That’s an imposition of much later Christian reinterpretation of the law onto the law itself. If this is the best Matt can do to discredit me, I just have to shake my head in astonishment.

Do I make mistakes? Yes. Of course I do. And Matt should point them out. (It would help, however, if Matt would present my arguments fairly and correctly when he tries to do so. It would save us all a lot of time if he would refrain from mischaracterizing my arguments in order to paint me as self-contradictory, as he tried to do with the issue of writing in Israel, for instance.) Yes, I welcome corrections. And unlike Paul and Matt, I’ll happily admit my errors. Why? Because I don’t have anything personal or professional at stake if I’m wrong. So, yes, correct me. But, more importantly, while you’re at it, try also responding to the damn substance of my arguments.

Or don’t. I really think Matt should just stop trying to critique my book review, and leave it to Paul. After all, it’s Paul’s book I reviewed, not Matt’s. I mean, Matt can do what he wants; it’s a free internet (for now). But if I were Paul, I wouldn’t want Matt Flannagan defending my work. I know they’re good friends, and I respect good friendships; but I’m also sometimes embarrassed by my good friends when they try to defend me, because they sometimes use arguments I wouldn’t use in a million years. That’s when I step in and argue on my own behalf; you know, because I care about my friends.

3 thoughts on “Responding to Criticisms of My Copan Review

  1. I just want to say that I appreciate the fact that you reply to criticism and counterarguments, keeping the debate alive. It aids in the building of your case.

  2. Do you suppose they’ve made a political calculation to attempt to cheaply discredit your scholarship rather than bother with substance or do you suppose that it’s some sort of manifestation of cognitive dissonance to get bent out of shape on trivial issues?  Probably a combination of the two.  I see Matt’s posts all the time on FB and they always seem very petty and filled with the same shallow misrepresentations you point out here.  I don’t see how anyone can be that stupid and continually manufacture issues out of nothing, so it seems they are desperate to self-justify their attempts to discredit your work.  

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