When Did the Word Become Flesh in John 1:14?

As noted in the previous article on John 1:14, the Word became flesh—embodied itself—qualitatively within the person of Jesus. Don Hartley[1] stated that all mass terms take a qualitative force, including “flesh” in John 1:14:

“John 1:14, for example, does not teach that the Logos became The Flesh or a flesh, but rather “flesh,” signifying that all the Logos possesses all the qualities or attributes of “flesh””

By indicating that the Word became flesh, it shows that the Word was not always flesh. There was a time before (and perhaps after) that it did not possess all the qualities or attributes of flesh. What is not stated is when the Word took on the qualities of flesh. Was Jesus the Word made flesh at his birth?

John’s Prologue

In John’s Prologue, he tells of a messenger of God, John the Baptist:

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. — John 1:6-9 NIV

John the Baptist came to proclaim the light, but only as witness. That light was coming. John, who was the same age as Jesus, said that the light had not yet come, but was in the process of coming. He told of the coming of the light…

There was the true light coming into the world, which gives light to every person. It was in the world, and the world came into being through it, and the world did not know it. (John 1:9-10 REV)

…the coming of Jesus…

He came to his own, and those who were his own did not receive him. — John 1:11 REV

…and his mission:

But as many as received him—to those who believe in his name—to them he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not from bloods, nor from the will of the flesh, nor from the will of a man, but from God. — John 1:12-13 REV

Here John finally talks of being born, but it is not of Jesus.[9] Rather, it is his followers being born—born of God! It is not a natural birth of man, but one of God.

When he concluded his prologue, John did not begin the narrative account of Jesus with the physical birth of Jesus. He began with John the Baptist, whom he had just discussed. There he told how John baptized Jesus and then the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus, like a dove from heaven and remained—or dwelt—in him. Jesus was born in the same way his followers would be, by water and spirit:

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. — John 3:5 NIV

Yet, sandwiched within John the Baptist—as an adult—saying that the light was coming, Jesus being rejected—as an adult—and Jesus being anointed—as an adult—with water and the Holy Spirit, is John 1:14: the Word becoming flesh.

…Was Coming

The prologue and the opening narrative discuss John the Baptist and Jesus. After John the Baptist spoke of the light that was coming, he then witnessed the coming of Jesus. The coming was a baptism in water followed by an anointing of the Holy Spirit (and its remaining presence). If Jesus and the light were both coming after Jesus was already an adult, it is odd to claim that the Word was already flesh at the (unmentioned) birth of Jesus.

Jesus began his ministry upon this anointing, when the light came into the world[2]. From that point forward, for a man to become a child of God, he had to be born, like Jesus, of water (through baptism) and also of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was the firstborn Son of God[3], but those who follow his example also become children of God. And so, the Word—God’s Holy Spirit, the glory of God—did become flesh, embodied—or tabernacled—first in Jesus and later his followers.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? — 1 Corinthians 3:16 NIV

Christians follow the example of their master to become children of God by believing the good news, being baptized by water, and receiving the Holy Spirit: all in the flesh. It does not make sense that “the Word became flesh” refers to Jesus preexisting his birth.

In the Beginning

The opening chapter of John is full of parallels. John 1:1 parallels the creation account in Genesis 1. Reading further, John reminds readers that through God’s Word, the world was created:[4]

All things came into being through it, and apart from it nothing came into being that has come into being. [..] It was in the world, and the world came into being through it, and the world did not know it. — John 1:3,10 REV

Yet, even though the Word of God created the world, the world did not recognize the Word of God. What was to be done about this?

The beginning of the book of John parallels another of John’s writing:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. — 1 John 1:1-3 NIV

The beginning is what was heard, touched, and seen. It is the Word that was proclaimed by Jesus, on behalf of the Father. As Mark 1:1 states, this Word is the Good News (that is, the gospel):

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

So we see two beginnings. The first is the beginning of the world, by the power of God’s Word. The second is a new creation through God’s Word: the coming of the Holy Spirit through first Jesus and then through the right for his followers to become children of God, of which Jesus is the firstborn. John draws a parallel between the very significant creation of the world and very significant creation of new life when men become children of God. What ties it all together? The Word of God.

The Word of God created the world, but that alone was not sufficient for the world to know the Word. The Word had to come in the flesh as a second creation for men to be reborn as children of God.

The Flesh that was Good News

In Hebrew the word בָּשַׂר (basar) is a verb that means “To bear tidings or good news.”[5] When the word is used in its masculine (Hebrew) or feminine (Aramaic) noun forms, it means “flesh”, “body”, or “meat”.[6][7] While the words are spoken with different vowel sounds, but since the written form has no vowels, the words are written exactly the same.

This type of pun is very common in Hebrew and Aramaic where, unlike English, the same root word can have distinct meanings that differ merely on their part of speech or gender. Much of this is lost in translation, including cases where multiple meanings are intended (e.g. intentional play-on-words).

Just as the ancient Hebrew would literally celebrate good news (such as the birth of a child!) by killing and eating a fat animal, so to is it good news that God’s Spirit has come to dwell within the bodies of men, recreating and rebirthing them. The good news of Jesus was, in very real terms, both his physical presence and the words of God that he proclaimed.

In light of this play-on-words, consider the words of Mark again:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

Or “We begin with Jesus, in whom the good news [בָּשַׂר] was embodied [בָּשַׂר]”.

John, whose native language was Aramaic, deliberately chose to use a play-on-words. He was not merely (or possibly even) being literal. Why did he say “the word became flesh?” For the same reason that John himself declared the Good News of Jesus in 1 John 1:1-3 and Mark declared the Good News of Jesus.


When did the word become flesh? When Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit came, as a dove, to dwell within him.[8]

When does the word become flesh? Every time a person is reborn and the Holy Spirit comes to dwell among men again.

[1] Robert Hommel states of Hartley: “…a student of Dan Wallace’s and research assistant on Wallace’s grammar, wrote his Master’s of Theology thesis at Dallas Theological Seminary on the topic of Colwell’s Construction and mass / count nouns.  He also published a paper derived from his thesis.”

[2] But even then, not fully, for his death and resurrection were still to come.

[3] Jesus is referred to as the firstborn of creation in Colossians 1:15-21, which uses similar language to that of John’s Prologue.

[4] As shown in the previous article, it is by the Word (not Jesus) that the world was made.

[5] https://biblehub.com/hebrew/1319.htm

[6] https://biblehub.com/hebrew/1320.htm

[7] https://biblehub.com/hebrew/1321.htm

[8] Luke 3:21-12; John 1:51

[9] There is a variant reading where the verb in v13 is singular and refers to Jesus’ birth.

The Trinity and the Protestants

The previous post “Grammatical Analysis of John 1:1c and John 1:14” noted that the doctrine of the Trinity is not supported by the grammar in the opening of the Gospel of John. Since this is widely considered to be the most important and direct scriptural evidence of Jesus’ preexistence and divinity, one would have to look elsewhere to establish such a doctrine. And indeed, this precisely what happened.

The doctrine of the Trinity was first developed at the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, three centuries after Jesus lived. The doctrine would be further refined in later councils of that century[1], but this was its formal beginning. Those determinations have since been fully embraced by Catholic and Orthodox traditions, who see the validity of the doctrine of the Trinity as an inseparable combination of Biblical teaching and church authority (e.g. the Catholic magisterium).

But many Protestants hold to the doctrine of sola scriptura, or the Bible alone.[2] If Protestants reject the primacy of the spiritual authority of the Catholic or Orthodox churches, then it must do so by rejecting the authority of their councils that codified the Trinitarian doctrine. The Protestant is faced with two logical choices:

  1. Accept the authority of the Catholic church and the illegitimacy of the Protestant offshoots.
  2. Reject the Trinity as a 4th century innovation[3].

The doctrine of sola scriptura obligates the latter.

Why is it that Protestants reject nearly every doctrinal innovation made by the Catholic church, but deeply accept the corruption about the very nature of the Father and the Son themselves? If you reject the authority of the Catholic church to establish doctrines, then you should reject the doctrine of the Trinity (which is arguably of greater consequence), because it is not defensible under a sola scriptura framework.

Protestants should either become Unitarian Monotheists[4] or else join the Catholic church.

John C. Wright, a well-reasoned writer who became a Christian in dramatic fashion, more-or-less agrees in his Catholic Universal Apologia:

While a Mormon or a Christian Scientist, who espouse theories even further from the mainstream than Arianism and Albigensianism, can say without a blush that all the Ecumenical Councils were wrong, no one who believes the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity can do so. These doctrines have little or no basis in scripture, and no basis whatever in natural reason: they are purely artifacts of the deposit of faith entrusted to the Apostles and their successors, and rest solely on the authority of the [Roman Catholic] Church to define Christian doctrine. (emphasis added)

[1] Directly coinciding with the formation of the magisterial Catholic church.

[2] This is generally simplified to mean accepting only the Bible and not the written works of later Christians outside of the accepted canon. Sola scriptura does not exclude the direct revelation of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, those who hold to the doctrine also accept that Holy Spirit speaks directly to Christians and authoritatively instructs them.

[3] Along with veneration of relics of martyrs, the doctrine of Mary’s sinlessness,  and the real presence of the Eucharist (the Roman mass sacrifice that replaced the tithe offering and consecration).

[4] Not Unitarians, which is a religious group. Unitarian Monotheists are Christians who reject the doctrine of the Trinity as a largely 4th century theological innovation not found in the Bible. They are not a specific religious group.

Grammatical analysis of John 1:1c and John 1:14

While the doctrine of the Trinity is defended in many ways with many verses, it is the book of John that contains the most compelling evidence. John 1:1-14 is one of two primary passages used almost universally (the other is John 20:28). Its importance to Christianity cannot be overstated. Michael F. Bird underscores this point in the opening chapter of the book “How God Became Jesus”:

“I have my own view as to “when” Jesus became God…I think I can articulate the answer by way of a quotation from John the Evangelist: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1)”

The Trinitarian interpretation can be summarized with the following logical propositions.

  1. Word was God. (John 1:1c)
  2. Word became flesh. (John 1:14)
  3. Therefore, God became flesh.

If the argument is extended to note that Jesus is the Son of God, it creates an apparent logical contradiction, for it states that Jesus is both the Son of God and God. It is logically incoherent to say that something is both of something and is something. This irrationality is acknowledged as a mystery or paradox that cannot be explained but is true nonetheless.[1] However, let’s put that aside and continue.

All is not as it appears with this argument. But before the analysis can continue, some additional information must be introduced.

Grammar of John 1:1c

John 1:1c uses the copula ‘was’ to join ‘god’ and ‘the word’: “the word was God.” In the Greek this is literally “God was the word”, where ‘the word’ is the subject with the definite article and ‘god’ is the predicate nominative without the definite article. The predicate nominative comes first for emphasis.

There are a range of possible interpretations. Robert Hommel does an excellent job summarizing the grammatical issues in The Apologists Bible Commentary on John 1. Kermit Zarley discusses the competing views in more detail, including the pros and cons of the major options. Those options are shown below in (roughly) increasing order of definiteness:

#PhrasePredicate Nominative Use
(1)The Word was a godindefinite
(2)The Word was divine
The Word had the same nature as God
qualitative adjectival
(3)What God was, the Word wasqualitative adjectival
(4)The Word was Goddefinite-qualitative
(5)God was the Worddefinite

The purely definite force leads to a reversible (or convertible) proposition[2] where “The Word was God” is equivalent to its converse “God was the Word.” This leads to Modalism or Sabellianism. Overwhelmingly, the historical orthodox interpretation has been definite-qualitative, though it has occasionally been translated as divine in an qualitative, adjectival sense.[3] The other qualitative interpretation suggests personification rather than divinity.[4] Jehovah’s Witnesses translate it using a purely indefinite force, where Jesus is a god, but not the God.

20th and 21st century scholarship has been moving away from the traditional interpretation towards more qualitative, adjectival interpretations, though the traditional interpretation remains popular.[5]

Regarding Jesus’ divinity, most of the attention has been and continues to be given to John 1:1 rather than 1:14. This may be a mistake.

Grammar of John 1:14

John 1:14 literally reads “And the word flesh became…” This is properly translated as “The word became flesh.” While in 1:1c used the copula “was”, verse 14 uses the semi-copula “became.” For practical purposes, “became” functions in the same semantic way as “was.” This will become important shortly.

Hommel notes that Don Hartley declared that all mass terms take a qualitative force, including “flesh” in John 1:14:

“John 1:14, for example, does not teach that the Logos became The Flesh or a flesh, but rather “flesh,” signifying that all the Logos possesses all the qualities or attributes of “flesh””

John 1:14 combines ‘the Word’ and the mass noun ‘flesh’ with the semi-copulative ‘became’. The word ‘flesh‘ has a qualitative force.

Having briefly examined the grammar, the problems will now become clear.

Grammatical Problems

Let’s quickly revisit the propositions:

  1. Word was God
  2. Word became flesh
  3. Therefore, God became flesh.

In the propositions, #3 does not logically follow because #1 is not a reversible proposition. #3 is only justified if God was the Word, but such a definite grammatical use is largely rejected by scholars. However, this is not the only argument made for divinity of the Son.

Trinitarian theology fully equates the Son with the Word (the preexistent “Logos-Son”). John 1:1c is taken to mean ‘[the Son] was God’ and 1:14 is ‘[the Son] became flesh.’ In the final analysis, the effective exegetical use of God is therefore strictly definitive (identity), not merely qualitative despite the grammar. It’s not good enough that the Son is ‘a god’ or ‘god-like’, for this suggests two gods. Similarly, the use of flesh is also strictly definitive (identity), for how else can the Son (mentioned in v.14 of the flesh) be the Word?

While 1:1c can be interpreted with a definite force, no one interprets 1:14 so that the Son became flesh in the definitive or identity sense. Traditionally, he became flesh in the qualitative sense, that is, the Son fully preexisted humanity (the flesh). For a more detailed proof of this, see the “Copulae Redux” below. How then do we know that the Word was the Son?

While the Word was God (#1) could potentially be a reversible proposition (i.e. “God was the Word”) if definite and not qualitative, The Word became flesh (#2) is not a reversible proposition because it is qualitative. The converse, “Flesh came from the Word” or “Flesh was [previously] the Word”, is not logically necessarily true. When flesh (a mass noun) became Word, this is in the qualitative, not definite (identity), sense. So you can’t conclude that the Son was the Word, because it doesn’t say the Word became the unqualified flesh of Jesus, the Son of God.

Whether ‘the Word’ is God in the definite, qualitative, or indefinite sense, it simply doesn’t matter because the Word is flesh in the qualitative sense. The consequences of this are profound. The full equivalence of ‘the word’ and ‘Son’ (or Jesus) cannot be established on grammatical grounds. This strongly militates against the preexistence of the Son. This precludes theologies based around the incarnation (and possibly angel Christologies as well). It does not, however, imply that Jesus was not divine in some sense. This permits both low and high Christologies[10], but does not settle the question of which one is correct.

Grammatical Illustrations

To help illustrate this conclusion, here are four supporting analogous grammatical examples:

Example #1: Consider the sentences “Lot’s wife became [some] salt” and “When you became a Christian, you became salt [and light].” While the converse might be true (as in the first statement) it is not necessarily (as in the second statement).

Example #2: If I say, “The wooden puppet became flesh”, you don’t say that all flesh is the puppet, you don’t say that a flesh is the puppet, and you don’t say the flesh is a puppet. It is not reversible. Indeed, Pinocchio is no longer a puppet, for he has transformed.

Example #3: I have a briefcase. I decide to put some clothes in it and take it with me on an airplane. The briefcase becomes luggage (another mass noun). While it is true that the briefcase can be called luggage, this is not its essence. It is still a briefcase, even after it loses the luggage attribute when I unpack. But notice again that it is not reversible. I can’t say “look, there is luggage, it must be a briefcase”, for not all luggage are briefcases.

Example #4: The day after “The Word became Flesh”, we could have said that “The word is flesh” (this is why the semi-copula should be treated like a copula).[9] As before, this is not a reversible proposition. Moreover, you can’t say flesh is the Word, because that’s not Trinitarian: his human nature (flesh) is not his divine nature (the word).

Look at example #4 more closely. The Trinitarian wishes to engage in a very subtle equivocation. The alleged proof of the Trinity reads like this: “The Word (that is God) is Jesus” and its converse “Jesus is the Word (that is God).” But that’s not what it says. Consider John 1:14 [NIV]:

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

This is the only place where the Son (Jesus) is tied to the Word. But it is “the flesh that was the word”[6] that made his dwelling, not the Son. It is “the flesh that was the word” that had glory. The glory of the Son is “the flesh that was the word”. This is obviously qualitative, as the glory of the Son is not the Son, but the Father.[7] Yet even fully granting that the flesh is Jesus doesn’t work because ‘flesh’ has a non-reversible use.

Copulae Redux

Let’s reevaluate the copula argument using the theological notion that the Prologue of John is moving the narrative forward in time from creation through to Jesus’ life and death. This is the sense used in Trinitarian doctrine when determining that Jesus preexisted the incarnation.

  1. First, the Word was God (divine; with God the Father).
  2. Then, the Word was flesh (human).
  3. Therefore, the Word was both flesh (human) and God (divine).
  4. The Word was flesh in Jesus, the Son of God.
  5. Therefore, Jesus, the Son of God, was both flesh (human) and God (divine).

It is plain from this formulation that the semi-copula in John 1:14 is treated as a copula in this theology. However, as pointed out by the grammatical analysis, the copulae (#1, #2, and #4) are not reversible. To drive this point home, “Son, the divine” could not become (change into) “Son, the flesh” by identity and still be “Son, the divine.” In order for the Son to be both divine and human, the sense must be qualitative. Therefore, the conclusion does not follow. The argument is logically invalid.


While there are many different interpretations for John 1:1c that can be used to support various Christologies, a number of them become implausible in light of John 1:14. In particular, it strongly militates against the preexistence of Jesus or the Son, since the full equivalence of ‘the word‘ and ‘Son‘ cannot be established. It does not, however, imply that Jesus was not divine in some sense. This permits both low and high Christologies.[10] Thus, incarnational theologies are most affected.

The grammar suggests that the Word of God the Father dwells inside of Jesus, the Son of God. This is the traditional Unitarian monotheist position: God dwelt inside of Jesus, but was not him by identity.[11]

For those who remain unconvinced, you can say that “The Father is God” and “Jesus is God” and “Jesus is not the Father”. If you don’t see the contradiction, it is probably because you have mentally replaced “is God” with “is fully God but a distinct person of the Trinity”. Trinitarians often do this automatically without realizing their assumption. But it is an assumption because the text just says “God” and the Bible never explicitly states that “God” means “Trinity”. The grammar does not justify this interpretation on its own. It must be added into the text.


Don Hartley, in reading John 1:1c as purely qualitative and in light of John 1:14, stated the following:

“Thus, Jesus is God in every sense the Father is”[8]

This represents a typical exegesis for John 1:1c and 1:14.

“In other words, the clear semantic of the mass or plural count noun, is meant to disambiguate the semantics of the singular count noun to which it is related in the discourse.”[8]

That is, the use of the mass noun “flesh” disambiguates the semantics of the singular anarthrous predicate nominative count noun “God” to which it is related. Therefore, disambiguate ‘the word was God’ by interpreting ‘God’ qualitatively according to the meaning of ‘the word became flesh.’ That is, the word is both flesh and God. Sound familiar?

  1. Word was God. (John 1:1c)
  2. Word became flesh. (John 1:14)
  3. Therefore, God became flesh.

Hartley argues that we should interpret #1 in light of ‘flesh’ in #2. To what end? To show #3, of course, but also to say more than that: “Jesus is God in every sense the Father is.” This goes much farther than is justified.

‘God’ and ‘flesh’ are related through ‘the word.’ You can plausibly say that ‘the word’ is a part of (or the nature of) ‘God the Father’ and that ‘the word’ became embodied within Jesus. All of this is justified grammatically as well as being fully compatible with Hartley’s semantic argument. But qualitative embodiment of the Word comes nowhere close to justifying Hartley’s view of Jesus, which contains three errors:

“Jesus is God…

You can’t get full equivalence between flesh/word/God and Jesus for the reasons already discussed. It’s not a logically valid deduction. Being qualitatively related is insufficient.

…in every sense…

Based on what? Even if ‘God’ is purely qualitative, there are a variety of possible explanations besides “in every sense.” Moreover, he doesn’t mean “in every sense”, he means “in every sense, including essence, but not person-hood.” This is circular reasoning because it presumes Trinitarianism.

…the Father is.”

‘God [the Father]’ is subtly equivocated with ‘[the full divinity of] God [the Trinity]’. This is an equivocation fallacy and circular reasoning. It is also another mistaken example of the definite (by identity) Jesus/flesh relationship (John 1:14) and the non-definite word/God relationship (John 1:1c). This reasoning is invalid.


This argument was developed after doing some grammatical research on John 1. The result was unexpected. I desired confirmation or a rebuttal, so I posted an early version of this argument on another forum. No feedback was forthcoming. It is undeniably possible that a critical logical mistake has been made here. It is also possible that no such mistake has been made. The goal of this academic and intellectual exercise is to see if the argument can hold up to scrutiny.

In my experience, Trinitarians will generally refuse to discuss alternatives to incarnational Christology. Historically, I would have been literally burned at the stake (along with my writings) for even making such arguments. As such, biblical unitarian monotheist authors like Kermit Zarley and Anthony Buzzard are rarely the subject of rebuttals. Rather, such arguments are likely to be dismissed with derision and scorn. This is especially frustrating for those searching for truth. Perhaps one day we will have greater dialogue.

John C. Wright, who denied that the doctrine of the Trinity could be established on the basis of natural reason or scripture alone[1], once stated:

“Ninth tenths of the enmity between Protestant and Catholic is concerned in non-serious but very bitter arguments of exactly this type, where the Protestant is uttering some slander against Catholicism that can with equal justice be turned against the Protestants.”

It is my intent to avoid bitter, unnecessary arguments. I believe that even if God is not a Trinity of equal persons, that He still wants his body to be united. I worship in fellowship with many Trinitarians, whom I call Brothers and Sisters in Christ.

[1] See CCC#237: (emphasis added) “But his inmost Being as Holy Trinity is a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone or even to Israel’s faith before the Incarnation of God’s Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit.” Catholic John C. Wright notes that both  doctrines of Trinitarianism and the Incarnation have “no basis whatever in natural reason.”

[2] A reversible or convertible proposition is one in which the proposition and its converse are both true. Formally A→B and B→A are both true.

[3] The distinction between divine and God’s nature is fairly subtle and can also be stated as divine nature. Roman Catholic grammarian Max Zerwick has argued for each at different times (in 1963 and 1988). The reasoning behind each differs slightly. (Zarley, p.328, 335)

[4] Unlike the other options, #3 cannot be mistaken for a second God or identity with God. It must mean that the Word is a reflection or representation of God, not God himself (e.g. Hebrews 1:3). (Zarley, p.334,336)

[5] Prior to and after E.C. Colwell developed his rule regarding anarthrous predicate nominatives, the traditional explanation held sway. The scholarly change away from this explanation is largely a consequence of the work of Phillip B. Harner. He stated “In John 1:1 I think that the qualitative force of the predicate is so prominent that the noun cannot be regarded as definite” (Phillip B. Harner, “Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns”. p.87).

[6] “The flesh that was the word” is awkward, obscure phrasing, but does not presume theology. Using embodiment would be clearer, as in “the flesh that embodied the word” or “the word that was embodied in the flesh.”

[7] As in John 15:8 [NIV]: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

[8] Don Hartley. 1998. “Revisiting the Colwell Construction in Light of Mass/Count Nouns.” [link].

[9] Since John 1:1 is written as history (what was), it implies that the truth value of “The Word was God” and “The Word is God” are equivalent, just as the truth value of “The Word became flesh” and “The Word is Flesh” are equivalent. Context allows us to treat the semi-copula as a copula.

[10] Jesus, a man, could have attained divinity—if at all—at conception, birth, baptism, transfiguration, resurrection, or ascension. This argument can be used in support of any of these. It only precludes arguing that Jesus, the Son of God, preexisted—as God, a god, or an angel.

[11] This is directly analogous to the Protestant evangelical “letting Jesus into my heart.” It is not clear why a Protestant evangelical tradition would embrace Trinitarianism, since the evangelical tradition explicitly maintains that God dwells inside a Christian. Having God dwell within both Jesus and his followers is in keeping with this primary theme of John’s gospel.

Adventures in Biblical Interpretation: Catholic Circular Reasoning

This is part four in a topical series:

(1) “On papal infallibility and cognitive dissonance
(2) “Did Jesus Give Peter the Papacy
(3) “Sacred Tradition of the Old Testament
(4) “Catholic Circular Reasoning” (This article)
(5) “The Keys to the Kingdom” (Coming)

Today’s adventure in biblical interpretation is a bit different. Rather than looking at one passage of the Bible, we’re going to look at biblical interpretation in general as it pertains to biblical canon. In his attempt to refute the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, Catholic Tim Staples writes the following at Catholic Answers:

So weak are the biblical attempts at an answer that often the Protestant response just turns the argument against the Catholic. “How do you know Scripture is inspired? Your reasoning is just as circular. You say the Church is infallible because the inspired Scripture says so, then you say that Scripture is inspired and infallible because the Church says so!”

Even if the argument utterly destroyed the Protestant position, the Catholic would be engaging in a fallacious appeal to consequences if they attempted to avoid addressing the circular reasoning charge.[1] The charge is a valid one and must be considered. So Staples continues the defense:

“Catholics do not claim the Church is infallible because Scripture says so. The Church is infallible because Jesus said so. The Church was established and functioning as the infallible spokesperson for the Lord decades before the New Testament was written.”

Woah! Let’s not be fooled by this sleight-of-hand.

How do we know Jesus said the Church is infallible? Because Jesus said so in scripture.[2] Without scripture, there are no words of Jesus and no claim of Church infallibility. It is therefore circular reasoning.

But what about the oral tradition? The oral tradition, which preceded the written tradition, is a red-herring, for that is not how we know Jesus’ words. Moreover, when the church declares the written word to be authoritative, it is, by extension, necessarily declaring the base spoken testimony to be authoritative. Jesus’ spoken testimony in scripture has weight because it represents God’s words, not because it is written.[3] It is the content of the writing, not the fact of the writing, that is inspired and infallible. The important date is not when the content was written, but rather the date of the content being referenced![4] Whether Jesus’ words were spoken or written, it is still circular reasoning.

But what about the establishment of the church prior to the written scriptural tradition? This is circular reasoning.[5] Staples presumes, quite explicitly, the existence of the Church being “the infallible spokesperson for the Lord” prior to the creation of the New Testament evidence used to support that claim. This is a common circular claim: beginning with the claim to be proved.[6]

He continues:

“It is true that we know Scripture to be inspired and canonical only because the Church has told us so. That is historical fact.”

Staples is not putting forth a defense of the Catholic Church’s view of inspiration, he’s making an assertion: the Church’s canon is inspired and canonical because it “has told us so.” This is an assertion, not a defense. It is cognitive dissonance, which is ironic in light of his comments (emphasis added):

“The issues of the inspiration and canon of Scripture are the Achilles heel of any intellectual defense of sola scriptura.”

By authenticating the canon upon which its authority is based, the Church proves itself from that canon: self-declaration. This completes the circle.

“Catholics reason to inspiration of Scripture through demonstrating first its historical reliability and the truth about Christ and the Church. Then we can reasonably rely upon the testimony of the Church to tell us the text is inspired. This is not circular reasoning.”

Look at what he said previously: scripture is canonical because church has told us so. This is not reasoning. In order to demonstrate the historical reliability of Christ and the Church, one has to first know which pieces of evidence are to be accepted and which are not. This is the purpose of a canon. It is circular reasoning.

Is this point unclear? Let’s follow the logic.

We have a collection of documents pertaining to Christ. Some are valid, some are not. We apply techniques, such as textual criticism, to determine which ones are most reliable. For example, we purge the unreliable, merge the reliable, and cross reference to rule out contradictions. Eventually we select the best and this forms a canon. So far so good, right? No. You can’t jump from reasoning to inspiration. He even states this:

“The New Testament is the most accurate and verifiable historical document in all of ancient history, but one cannot deduce from this that it is inspired.”


“The Bible does not and cannot answer questions about its own inspiration or about the canon. Historically, the Church used sacred Tradition outside of Scripture as its criterion for the canon. The early Christians, many of whom disagreed on the issue, needed the Church in council to give an authoritative decree to settle the question. Those are the historical facts.”

This is where the logic fails. How does the formation of canon by selection of the best historical documents pertain to the question of inspiration? It doesn’t. It’s a red-herring intended to make the Catholic position look reasonable. How is the canon really authorized? Council. The council, a ruling subset of the Church, which takes its authority from the inspired canon, determines what the canon is. That’s circular reasoning.

Reexamine the first quote. The Catholic wishes to obfuscate the circularity, while the Protestant states it outright and honestly. For the Protestant, it’s okay if (1) biblical inspiration and infallibility are unproven articles of belief; and (2) there is no centralized human authority. Why? The Holy Spirit can reveal the truth. This is not so for the Catholic. If the inspiration of the Bible is not established by deductively reasoned acceptance (and it can’t be), then the Church’s authority is based on dogma, that is, blind faith and unreasoned acceptance. The Catholic does not accept that the Holy Spirit alone is required: it requires a human ruling body. This is why the circular reasoning charge is so serious.

The historical record also tells us that Jesus Christ established a Church—not a book—to be the foundation of the Christian faith.

This is the crux of the matter and it is true. I’ve written about it before. The Catholic church does not understand what Jesus meant by this, as is clear from the circularity of the Catholic position. The “church” is not an authority structure or a group of leaders, it is the body of all believers. Christianity is not a book and never has been. It is the content of the writing, not the fact that it is written. The book contains the words of God, but it is the believers who spread God’s word. We are first and foremost the God’s messengers (evangelicals) called to make disciples.

[1] This misrepresents the sola scriptura argument. The Protestant position is that God inspires scriptures directly and does not require the assistance of the Church.

[2] For sake of argument. The very premise of papal infallibility is based on flawed reasoning, as is the weak foundation of the papacy and church authority.

[3] One cannot argue that the oral tradition was not equally valid, for it is the oral tradition upon which the written tradition is based. We prefer scripture for its relative permanence, portability, ability to be copied, ability to be analyzed, etc., but it is not the only valid method of transmission. Both traditions have equal authoritative weight.

[4] Since the date it was written is irrelevant, here is the reformulated point: “The Church was established and functioning as the infallible spokesperson for the Lord after Jesus spoke the words to establish it.” This is essentially tautological.

[5] Why would the fact of an “established and functioning” Church prove Jesus’ words? It wouldn’t. If the Church’s existence shows the legitimacy of its foundation, that is circular reasoning.

[6] The thinking goes like this: (1) Jesus is infallible; (2) Jesus authorized Peter and his successors to be the official church; therefore (3) the existence of a church led by Peter’s successors proves that the church infallible. This has the appearance of a simple logical deduction, but the circularity is being hidden: Jesus is infallible because the church says so. The soundness of the argument depends on the Protestant accepting the opening premise without any conditions, such as how we know that Jesus is infallible. Whether the church or scripture tells us so, does not change the circularity.

Is the Death Penalty Justified?

The Roman Catholic Church recently made changes to CCC 2267. In it two claims were made:

  1. “…the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
  2. “…non-lethal means are sufficient…and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

The RCC further clarifies that in modern society, there is practically no reason to ever use it. In short, it should never be used. While the death penalty is justified according to the first claim, it is no longer needed. But this conclusion depends on whether the second claim is correct.

Genesis 9:6 (NIV) states:

“Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.

Here we affirm that the death penalty for murder is specifically justified by God himself. Look carefully at the reason given. It is because man is made in the image of God. In Christian terms, the dignity of a person is derived from every human being made in the image of God. Murder violates the dignity of another person more completely than anything else and taking the life of murderer is just: it upholds the dignity of life. The RCC has inverted this by claiming that the dignity of a person is a reason not to punish them with death. This is logically contradictory. The RCC is, quite simply, wrong in asserting the second claim.

So if the death penalty is justified, is it a requirement? No. We need look no further than the case of David and Bathsheba. David was sentenced to death for murdering Bathsheba’s husband, but because he repented God stayed his hand. Thus, at minimum, the death penalty can (and possibly should) be rescinded if the murderer repents.

The RCC is wrong when it says that human dignity is the reason to oppose the death penalty. Indeed, it is the reason for the death penalty. Yet we do not need to ignore mercy, especially in the face of repentance. So the RCC is at least right on one thing: we don’t necessarily have to take the lives of others.

What is the Torah?

This article is part of the series Adventures in Biblical Interpretation.

There are many debates on how to handle the law of the Old Testament. We have many questions. How much of it is binding on us today? What are the specific meanings of certain laws? What is the purpose of the law and how should we take it? There are many other questions. There are all kinds of problems trying to interpret the law.

The Hebrew word for law is Torah. It can mean to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), the specific portions of Law contained within the Pentateuch, or all of Scripture.[1a] The ideal translation for Torah into English is not ‘law’, but ‘instruction’.[1a][2] This is an important distinction that will be revisited below.

Not all laws in the Torah are of the same kind. For example, there are dietary and purity laws that only apply to Israel, to show their special status to God.[1b] These laws do not apply to Gentiles.[1c][5] There are laws that only apply to Levites and priests. Because not all laws are the same kind, their relative applicability and importance are not equivalent. Therefore, we can make no specific judgments about a law solely because it is included in the Law portion of the Torah.

For example, this article shows that Genesis 2:23-24 (“shall cleave” and “shall become one flesh”) describes both the act of marriage and sex as equivalent.[3] However, later the claim was made that the rules on a virgin making vows and having sex found in the Law[4] are a valid exception and that the marriage never happened even though sex took place.

I wrote:

“[The father] can’t change the fact that a marriage (sex) took place and the two became one flesh.”

The reply:

“By definition, the agreements get reviewed *after the fact* and the father has the authority to forbid them…when it comes to the Law of Marriage, this situation is an exception due to the authority of the father.”

This claim says that the there is an exception to the Genesis rules on marriage. A father can make it so that the two were not one flesh even though they had sex, that is, the marriage never happened even long after it did happen.[6] This is absurd. The authority of a father laid out in the Law of the Torah is not able to override the precepts of the designed marriage plan in Genesis[8], for there is nothing about being in the Law of the Torah that makes it automatically of highest moral authority (see the discussion on the morality of the law below).

Now if, as laid out in Genesis 2:24, a man and virgin woman become one flesh and are married when they have sex, then a father ending the relationship would necessarily be a divorce. In Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus replies to a question on divorce by saying that from the beginning (quoting Genesis 2:24) a man and woman have sex and become one flesh, a joining that God brings together that no man may separate. He then explains that divorce was allowed in the Law because their hearts were hard.

Notice what Jesus says: the law permitting divorce is not normative solely by virtue of it being in the Law of the Torah. The existence of a law that permits divorce does not mean that divorce is fine. The Law is just a regulation of things to do or not to do.

Jesus affirmed that God’s design for marriage from the time of Creation up to the giving of the Law was unconditional.[8] When a man and woman have sex, they are married. The father is indeed permitted by the Law to end the marriage, but because Jesus declared that sexual immorality is the only valid reason for divorce, the father should not exercise his legal right to cancel the marriage unless that is the reason.[7]

In response to the definition of “sexual immorality”[9], another claim was made that pertains to the understanding what Law of the Torah is:

“Immorality is a violation of the Law”

This has already been demonstrated to be false as not all laws in the Law are moral laws, including the purity regulations. Moreover, while much of the law is based on morality, it is not morality itself. One must look at a law and ask what the purpose behind that law is.[2a] While the law regulates things to do and not do, it does not cover every situation or always explain its purpose. This is why the meaning of Torah is best described as “instruction.”

Jesus, in Matthew 18:18 use the terms “binding” and “loosing” to tell his disciples that they would have this authority. This is rabbinical language to permit and forbid teachings of the law. That is, they would be have authoritative explanatory power under God’s direction.[2] Torah is instruction that must be authoritatively explained. Legalistic, that is especially formulaic, explanations must be avoided. This is, of course, why the Rabbis existed in the first place: to explain the Law. There was great disagreement about how to interpret the Law and what actions qualified as a violation of the Law.

Jesus weighed in on a number of these issues. It’s why he taught that the laws on divorce should further restrict divorce. Not because there was a problem with the Law, but because the binding and loosing of the instruction was wrong. The teachers of the Law did not explain it properly. The permissive law on divorce (like the permissive law on a father’s right to cancel his daughter’s marriage) must be subjected to the restrictions set down by God’s initial design.

Some instructions in the Torah are for specific people, times, and places. There are civil, legal, ritual, dietary, priestly, and moral instructions. It would be a great mistake to treat the entire Torah as if it should be interpreted in exactly the same way. The only reason to use a legalistic and simplistic interpretation is if it supports preconceived notions that support a particular doctrine.

[1] “Paul was Not a Christian.” Pamela Eisenbaum.

  [a] p.75

  [b] p.77

  [c] p.78

[2] Binding and Loosing“. Truth or Tradition. Spirit & Truth Fellowship International.

  [a] “if a man’s fire got out of control and burned up his neighbor’s crop, he was responsible to replace what was burned (Exod. 22:6). The point of the Instruction (Torah) is not that we are responsible only for fires we cause, but that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions, and must repay people who are hurt by what we do.” — The man is not immoral, but he is responsible.

[3] See the formal proof: Genesis 2:24 uses ‘dabaq’ (translated ‘shall cleave’). Matthew 19:5-6 quotes Genesis in Greeek using the word ‘kollao’. 1 Corinthians 6:16 uses the term ‘kollao’ in the context of having sex and becoming one flesh with a prostitute. Therefore ‘shall cleave’ must be equivalent to having sex. There is no other marriage ceremony.

[4] See: Numbers 30:3-5, Exodus 22:16-17, and Deut. 22:28-29.

[5] Pamela Eisenbaum later argues that not only don’t they apply to Gentiles, but that Paul specifically states that they cannot apply to Gentiles because only those who convert to Judaism are under those Laws. Gentiles have not entered into that covenant with God and therefore have no legal right to the duties and benefits specific to that agreement. In other words, while Gentiles may be God’s children, they are not his special chosen people.

[6] This is implicit time travel, extreme legalism, and/or hocus-pocus. The man and woman are husband and wife (married by having sex) up to the time when the father of the bride decides to revoke the marriage at his discretion. This could literally be many years later and they may have had children together. At this point, the sex that took place is retroactively undone, they are instantly no longer one flesh, and the marriage never happened. This horribly twisted absurdity is described here in the comment section. It is illustrative of the depths and lengths sometimes taken to justify a particular doctrine.

[7] Logically at least some, if not all, seduction of a virgin woman must be considered sexual immorality for two reasons. (1) There is an unconditional penalty for the seduction, the payment of the bride price, so we know that something wrong took place; (2) The teaching on divorce was in the law because there existed at least one legitimate use of it (divorce due to sexual immorality), therefore there must be at least one legitimate use of a father’s power to end his daughter’s marriage. Because sexual immorality is the only legitimate reason to end a marriage and the father’s right to end the marriage is optional, then at least some seduction must be immoral. The conclusion, therefore, is either that all ‘premarital sex’ or some seduction (deceiving the woman) is immoral.

[8] Is it possible that Genesis 2:23-24 is conditional? That is, are there cases where sex does not lead to a joining of flesh? I have not been presented with any argument that proves this but would be eager to hear any possible explanation for this notion.

[9] Sexual immorality is participating in sexual acts that are immoral or wicked. All sex outside of a husband and wife marriage (which includes the initial sex that created the marriage) is immoral because it is adultery.

Adventures in Biblical Interpretation: Incest and Polygyny

Today’s adventure in biblical interpretation is Leviticus 18:17-18. This was brought to my attention in a comment by Artisianal Toad, a proponent of polygyny. While you can read the comment quoted below, you can also read his full rationale on his blog.

“Oh, did you notice that not only is there no prohibition of female homosexuality in the Law, but the incest statutes that apply to polygyny (Leviticus 18:17-18) presume sexual contact between wives in such a marriage?”

There is a lot packed into this short statement. It is saying that polygyny is acceptable, that female genital contact is accepted in a polygynist relationship, and that there is nothing wrong with female homosexuality in general. While a lot could be written on these three topics, I’m only going to address the notion that this passage of Bible is about incest and that it presumes that wives in a plural-marriage will be making genital contact with each other.

Leviticus 18 is a passage that condemns various sexual practices. Most of the practices forbidden are incest, but there are a few others cases (such as sex with an animal) that are also forbidden. Verses 17 and 18 read:

17You are not to uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter. You are not to take her son’s daughter, or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness; they are near kinswomen. It is wickedness. 18You are not to take a wife to her sister, to be a rival, to uncover her nakedness while her sister is yet alive.” (REV)

Let’s start with verse 18. A man is not to marry two sisters because this would most likely cause significant rivalry. The case of Jacob and his wives, sisters Leah and Rachel, is a classic illustration of this and possibly the reason behind this regulation.[1] While this is an interesting regulation as it pertains to polygyny, there is no indication in this verse that marrying sisters would necessarily result in genital contact among sisters.[6]

One argument is that this command (v18) comes immediately after the other instances of incest (v6-17), so it is inferred that this must also be incest. However, the following verse (v19) is certainly not about incest. There is no reason to infer from the placement of v18 that it is describing incest when it explicitly gives the reason for the command as rivalry, not incest. If it is not incest, then genital contact cannot be inferred.

The other argument requires quoting the verse from the KJV:

“Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time.”

The interpretation goes something like this: “don’t marry the sister of your wife for it would upset her if you had sex with her sister beside her.” “Beside the other” is taken to literally mean that the two women are beside each other while the man is having sex. But that is obviously not the correct meaning. It makes no sense to say that they should not have threesome sex during her lifetime, as if it would be fine to have all three having sex in bed as long as one of them were dead.[2][10] This very strange interpretation is only due to the way the text is translated in the KJV. It is not supported by other translations[3] or commentaries[1][4][5][6].

So we must back up to verse 17 and see if that supports the original claim. It explicitly forbids marrying your wife’s daughter or her granddaughter. (It also applies in reverse: to marrying the mother or grandmother of your wife.)

The argument is that because it says “and” that it is implying that the wife and daughter are married at the same time and that this is incest because the women are having sexual genital contact with each other. But the text does not say this. Incest is not defined as genital contact between two women[7], it is defined as a man marrying[8] a blood-relative or near-relative (v6). Verse 17 just continues the prohibitions against marrying an in-law (v12-16). The prohibition against marrying your wife’s daughter or granddaughter or any in-law or any blood-relative applies even if your wife dies.[4]

The original premise does not hold up to scrutiny. Verse 17 isn’t even about polygyny, so it can’t be used to to make any statement at all regarding genital contact between women. Only verse 18 has anything to do with polygyny, yet it still has nothing to do with genital contact.

In a previous adventure, I showed how some biblical interpretations take after the biases of those performing the interpretations, even if the face of absurdities. In this adventure, it is plain that the suggested interpretation suffers from a significant amount of reading a conclusion into the text, or eisegesis. This yields itself to weak arguments that don’t hold up to scrutiny. While it obviously isn’t impossible for a non-traditional interpretation to be correct, the proposed alternative better have a rock solid argument to back it up.[9]

[1] See the Adam Clark Commentary section on Leviticus 18:18.

[2] As this is a particularly evocative statement, let’s break it down logically. If the vexing is seeing her sister have sex with her own husband, then why even mention her lifetime? There is no need for a lifetime ban on the marriage if that was the source of vexation. Why not just command that the wives have separate bedrooms? Or you could allow the marriage of two sisters if they agreed that threesome sex was not vexing. If the concern was that the threesome would be uncomfortable, the lifetime of the participants would not be the logical solution to the problem.

[3] http://biblehub.com/leviticus/18-18.htm

[4] See John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible section on Leviticus 18:17-18.

[5] “Beside the other – Law against polygamy” in Expanded Biblical Comments – Commentary of the Old and New Testament. Charles Taze Russell, 1916

[6] “Leviticus 18:18 is quite clearly a ban on a particular type of polygamy, in the context of law-order which permitted polygamy in general…If a man has a barren wife, he is not to seek a woman capable of having children among his wife’s kin.” in Man and Woman in Biblical Law. Tom Shipley, 2010. p.128.

[7] According to his own argument that the Bible does not treat genital contact by women as sex. Therefore, it can’t be incest.

[8] That is, having sex with.

[9] Notice also what I don’t say. My response does not preclude the possibility of approved genital contact between women, it only rejects Leviticus 18 as support of that possibility. There may be other evidence for or against that premise, but it can’t be found here. My conclusion is restricted to the narrowly argued case that I presented.

[10] This argument was made at http://www.christianpoly.org/lev18.php

Criticizing the Bible, Interpreting the Law

This article is part of the series Adventures in Biblical Interpretation.

When it comes to criticizing the Bible, one of the most common cheap-shot objections is to point to the obscure laws laid out in the Torah. Various approaches are taken, from showing how out-of-date they are, to how Christians don’t bother to follow them even though Jesus said they should, to how they contradict each other, and to how immoral they are (just to name a few). One of the most classic examples of this distortion is the claim that the Bible advocates rape as laid out in an evilbible.com article in the section “Death to the Rape Victim” on Deuteronomy 22:23-24:

It is clear that God doesn’t give a d**n about the rape victim.  He is only concerned about the violation of another mans “property”.

For anyone discussing the Bible with non-believers, this type of objection is quite common. Tyler Graham, of the Tyler Journeaux blog, recounts his own experience (see the uncut original):

Recently I was treated to a somewhat nostalgic experience: being called upon to act as an apologist for scripture … I was presented with a passage from Deuteronomy by two young women who had interpreted it as a justification for rape and a very peculiar kind of victim blaming … The passage had scandalized them and they turned to me to see what I might say in its defense … I have always found that upon closer inspection one finds that understanding more of the historical, legal and literary context mitigates the scandal we originally feel … I tried to balance reading the passage (along with the surrounding context, etc.) with keeping up in conversation with them over the phone as they jumped from one related issue to another

The two young women acted in much the way you would expect for those who were not seekers. They had questions, yes, but were not eager to understand the defense. Tyler points out that closer inspection usually mitigates the surface problems in the text, but I want to suggest something even stronger: That accurate biblical interpretation is normally not very difficult, it just takes a (rare?) honest look. Yes, there are some very difficult passages and almost any can be twisted, but most are pretty straightforward.

It is important to use the principle of charity. A great many apparent contradictions and difficulties in the Bible will simply disappear. For example, the notion that the Bible would advocate the acceptance of rape, when it has laws condemning rape, would violate this principle.

So let’s walk through the original passage and see exactly what can be made of it:

22“If a man be found lying with a woman married to a husband, then they must both of them die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; so you must put away the evil from Israel. 23If there is a young lady who is a virgin pledged to be married to a husband, and a man find her in the city and lie with her, 24then you must bring them both out to the gate of that city and you must stone them to death with stones; the lady, because she didn’t cry out, being in the city, and the man, because he has humbled his neighbor’s wife, so you must put away the evil from the midst of you. 25But if the man find the lady who is pledged to be married in the field, and the man force her and lie with her, then the man only who lay with her must die; 26but to the lady you are to do nothing; there is in the lady no sin worthy of death, for as when a man rises against his neighbor and kills him, even so is this matter; 27for he found her in the field, the pledged to be married lady cried out, and there was none to save her. (Deuteronomy 22:22-27; Revised English Version)

To the critic, the meaning of this passage is clear: The bible punishes rape victims with death. Is this the meaning you got out of reading this passage? Let’s examine the passage in more detail by looking at the what is being said.

No one has sexual rights to a married woman other than her husband, on pain of death.

When a man and a married woman are caught in the act by a third party, this means two things: (1) the woman, if she was raped, was in hearing range of a third party; and (2) that third party was a witness to either adultery or rape. The primary question is then: would the woman be punished if this were rape? This is not stated in this verse, so we need to continue reading. Later verses make it clear that if the woman was raped (evidenced by her crying out), then only the man was punished.

The punishments given were for the crime of adultery, not rape. Note that if a woman was betrothed (rather than married) it was still considered adultery. Even if the woman is raped (verse 27), the man is still committing adultery.

There is an underlying assumption that if the woman were being raped (not committing adultery), she would be resisting her rapist and attempting to seek help by crying out. She is not permitted to decide later whether or not it was consensual.

The man is presumed guilty while the woman is presumed innocent. The man would be put to death whether or not rape or adultery took place. This is a progressive feminist stance that borders on unfair by putting the duty on the man to behave responsibly.

Now back to the question of what happens to a woman being raped and the man being caught in the act? Clearly he is going to be put to death. But do we really think that the magistrate would discount the witness’ statement that it was a rape and execute the woman, especially given the innocent-until-proven-guilty approach towards the woman? I think not.

So let’s summarize what this passage teaches about women:

  • A man has no sexual rights of any kind to another man’s betrothed or wife. The punishment for violating this is death, unconditionally.
  • A woman is presumed innocent of adultery (that is, a victim of rape) until positively proven guilty. Not seeking help (crying out, fighting back) is, however, considered evidence of consensual sex.
  • A woman has no right to commit adultery, even if consensual. The punishment for this, if proven, is death.

Does the Bible advocate rape here? Is it blaming the victim? Absolutely not. It treats women as innocent until proven guilty, but does not give a woman the right to commit adultery. It is certainly different from modern laws, no doubt about that. Rape is treated as a very serious crime.

Had the two young women simply applied the principle of charity to the text and attempted to give it an honest read, everything would have been fine. The feminist-like pro-woman stance might have even had some appeal (although admittedly not for the sex-anytime-you-want-for-whatever-reason feminist).

The lesson here is that when interpreting the Law critically, you really do have to leave your preconceived notions behind. It isn’t hard to understand this particular set of laws. The irony of the critic’s bias is that conclusion is completely wrong: the Law actually treats women preferentially.

Adventures in Biblical Interpretation: Sodom

The biblical story of Sodom from Genesis 18 and 19 is a popular story for many people. Biblical skeptics argue that it shows that God approves of rape. Conservative Christians use it to show that homosexuality is one of the greatest sins. Searching the internet for “Sodom”, “Lot”, and “rape” yields many results. Many of the comments about the text are absurd, both from Christians and non-Christians alike. Some of this is highlighted in the following completely absurd paraphrase of a section of Genesis 19.

Two men, angels in disguise, arrived at Sodom in the evening. Lot was waiting at the city gate and invited them to stay at his house. The men declined, saying, “We’ve heard the reputation of this town and wish to take our chances on the street. Maybe we’ll have a good time.” Lot begged them to come to his house for their own safety and they relented. Soon every man in town, every last one of them a homosexual, came to Lot’s door and demanded access to the guests so that they could gang-rape them. Lot replied “No my closest friends, the laws of hospitality forbid it! Please, I have two virgin daughters. Please gang-rape them instead.” The gay men had no interest in having sex with any woman and got angry. “You are a stranger to our town, how dare you judge our hospitality!”

Let’s ask the following questions: Were the sins homosexuality and lack of hospitality? Was the rape condemned? Was the Bible merely reporting Lot’s actions or approving of them? Do either the traditional explanations or the skeptical objections make sense?

Steve Wells, author of The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, writes of this passage under the title “Lot Offers His Daughters For Rape”, condemning the Bible for advocating rape. In response to a criticism by National Catholic Reporter Thomas L. McDonald On Genesis 19:8, Steve writes:

Mr. McDonald sums this one up this way: “We don’t have to believe that Lot is in the right to understand the point of the story.” But he’s wrong about that, if you believe the Bible anyway.

How can this be? How can the Bible sanction Lot offering his daughters up to be raped, calling him righteous? Yet, 2 Peter 2:7-8 reads:

7and rescued righteous Lot, worn down by the unrestrained manner of life of the lawless 8(for that righteous man while living among them day after day, kept torturing his righteous soul by what he saw and heard concerning their lawless works); (Revised English Version)

The numerous times that Christian apologists claim that the Bible wasn’t approving of Lot’s actions are simply wrong. Steve explains:

Lot was a just and righteous man; the only one in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah that was righteous enough for God to save.

What to do with this? How could God declare righteous a man who advocated rape of his own daughters? There are two possible explanations.

The Trolley Problem Explanation

The trolley problem is a well known thought experiment in ethics. A runaway train is headed towards a group of 5 strangers who will certainly be killed if you do nothing. You, standing next to the lever, can choose to do nothing or redirect the track to kill a single person, your own child, standing on the other track. Assuming there are no other options, which is the most ethical and moral choice?

According to the traditional view, Lot was faced with the following problem: if he gives up the guests to the men in the town, the following sins would have been committed: rape, homosexual acts (a crime punishable by death under the later law), and a violation of hospitality. If he gave up his daughters, then only rape of betrothed women would have occurred (a crime also punishable by death under the later law). Given the choice between the two, he chose the one with fewer laws broken, the lesser of two evils.

It has also been pointed out that since he called them “brothers” in the text, he presumably knew that they would reject his daughters, so he was really just bluffing in an attempt to distract them and make them see their sin and leave.

This explanation has the advantage of making sense of both the immediate text and the 2 Peter text declaring Lot to be righteous, but it is still uncomfortable, like killing your own daughter to save five lives in the trolley problem. Offering your own daughters to be raped is not something many would be comfortable with, no matter the alternatives.1 Other alternatives might include fighting a losing battle against the men to defend both the guests and his daughters. That probably would have meant the death of himself and perhaps his whole family, but he would have not sullied himself.

The point of this explanation is that there was no good way out of it. Lot attempted to peacefully negotiate his way out of the situation, but ultimately he was forced to choose between all bad choices. That doesn’t make him unrighteous or God immoral. The explanation also has a ring of truth: It’s the kind of no-win situation that we have all experienced from time to time.

The Hospitality Explanation

The other option is much more reasonable, but it requires readers to abandon the notion that this was about homosexual acts or virgin gang-rape.2 We know from the wider passage that Lot had not been living in the city for long. Even though he called them brothers, they accused him of being an outsider. The word “know” is ambiguous. It is sometimes used to mean “have sex with”, but this is not the most common biblical use. It is also never used in the Bible to describe homosexual acts. Some have suggested that when the village men wanted to “know” the visitors, what they meant was “interrogate”, that is, “get to know them and their motives”. Why? Because the men of the city thought that the visitors were spies or troublemakers.

Lot objected to the violation of hospitality. The visitors were his guests, and turning them over to the city to be interrogated was offensive. As a member of the community, he was willing to vouch that the visitors would cause no harm. So he offered up his daughters as hostages, to act as surety that the visitors were harmless. At this point the men become angry, saying they will treat Lot in the same way as the visitors: as outsiders.3

The advantage of this explanation is quite clear: It adequately explains everything that happened and is completely consistent with the Bible’s broader teachings. The ‘disadvantage’? Christians can’t use this particular explanation if they want Sodom to represent the ultimate evil of homosexuality.


What seems plain from the discussion of Sodom is that many sides, both skeptic and Christian alike, are most interested in using this passage of Genesis to further their own agendas. The result is a lot of intellectual blindness. I’m not sure which of the explanations is the correct one, or even that there are not other explanations. I don’t know if this will satisfy the skeptics, perhaps not, but the explanations do seem both logical and morally satisfactory.

In all the discussion of homosexuality and rape, the purpose of the passage seems to have been completely missed. Lot was a righteous man and God protected him. The city of Sodom was destroyed for the choices that they made. There are still many lessons that can be learned.

1 Is is then perhaps ironic that Lot was eventually raped by the very daughters he had offered up to be raped.

2 Sodom’s crimes are not explicitly stated in Ezekiel 16:49-50 as being homosexuality and rape, while a number of other explicit reasons are given. See the discussion by Dr. Benjamin L. Corey.

The great irony is that the men of the city were absolutely correct: the angels were troublemakers; sent there by God to save Lot and destroy the city.

Did Paul Doubt The Resurrection?

The apostle Paul is widely considered by many to be the most important Christian to ever live. As many as fourteen books of the Bible are attributed to him.1 His influence on both the spread of Christianity and its doctrines has been profound. This is especially noteworthy because Paul was not an eyewitness to Jesus and yet his writings on the teachings of Jesus, written at least twenty years after the crucifixion, are the earliest we have.

Paul started out as Saul of Tarsus. He was a Pharisee who zealously persecuted members of early Christianity. Acts 9 tells the story of his vision of the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, his subsequent blindness and healing, and a complete conversion to Christianity. He went from persecuting Christians to becoming its greatest advocate on the basis of a divine intervention.

Many atheists have demanded nothing less than an unambiguous miracle in order to believe. Yet, time and again the supernatural is rationalized away as doubts creep in. Most modern Christians, who like Paul are not eyewitnesses of Jesus, have doubts. Did Paul have these kinds of doubts too?

First let us examine what Paul had to say about the resurrection of Jesus. He writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:

For I delivered to you as of first importance that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers at once (most of whom remain alive until now, but some have fallen asleep), then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me also. (REV)

This passage is considered by biblical scholars to be a very early Christian creed, originating in the early years after the crucifixion. Eric Chabot explains:

The majority of scholars who comment think that Paul probably received this information about three years after his conversion, which probably occurred from one to four years after the crucifixion.  While we can’t be dogmatic about this, we do know at that time, Paul visited Jerusalem to speak with Peter and James, each of whom are included in the list of Jesus’ appearances (1 Cor. 15:5, 7; Gal. 1:18–19). This places it at roughly A.D. 32–38.

Paul may very well have visited Jerusalem to interview Peter and James, eyewitnesses to Jesus. Many scholars suspect that the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 came out of that meeting. Could it be that Paul had doubts about the resurrection and needed to have personal confirmation from eyewitnesses?

Paul’s influence is so heavily weighted on Christianity that we sometimes forget that he was human and would have had doubts, just as we do. It is because of those doubts that we have, preserved in the letter to the Corinthians, early eyewitness testimony. It is arguably the strongest historical evidence we have in favor of belief in Jesus. So perhaps our greatest debt to Paul is not the large body of work, but those small doubts that led him to seek out answers. In the words of Jesus (emphasis added):

“Keep asking, and it will be given to you; keep seeking, and you will find; keep knocking, and it will be opened to you! For everyone who keeps asking receives, and the one who keeps seeking finds, and to the one who keeps knocking it will be opened. (REV)

1 The authorship of a number of the books commonly attributed to Paul is contested by biblical scholars.

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