Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

An Open Letter to CNN’s Piers Morgan

May 23, 2012 40 comments

[Update: An expanded version of this letter, with additional information about how I read the Bible regarding homosexuality, is available on the Huffington Post. (June 5, 2012)]

Dear Mr. Morgan:

I believe you have been promoting bigotry and helping to perpetrate a fraud.

Is Homosexuality a Sin?During both of your interviews with Pastor Joel Osteen on your CNN broadcast, you let the religious leader tell your audience that Scripture calls homosexuality a sin. But you didn’t ask him where the Bible says that.

It’s both an important point and an easy one to settle. You could have asked Pastor Osteen for the chapter and verse that he thinks calls homosexuality a sin. What you would have found is that he couldn’t provide it, because Pastor Osteen was expressing his personal opinion, not quoting the Bible. The Bible doesn’t say that homosexuality is a sin.

It seems to me that Pastor Osteen, as a religious leader, has a right to believe what he wants and to encourage others to follow. So if he doesn’t accept homosexuality, it’s his prerogative to spread his anti-homosexuality message. But I think it’s dishonest when he pretends that his opinions are those of the Bible.

Similarly, if you don’t like homosexuality, it’s your right to say so on air. But I think it’s irresponsible of you to let a guest tell your audience that something is in the Bible without even asking where.

This glaring omission is all the more surprising in light of your claim to be “challenging.” Why didn’t you challenge Pastor Osteen on this basic factual issue?

I look forward to your response.


Joel M. Hoffman, PhD


Copies: Meghan McPartland,
  Jonathan Wald,
Categories: Bible, current events

The Apostle Paul did not Believe in the Historical Adam

May 10, 2012 22 comments

A debate has been raging about whether Adam was an historical figure. I think it’s important, because it represents a more general debate about how to live a modern religious life. I also think it highlights a fundamental misunderstanding.

Paul didn't believe in an historical Adam or a non-historical Adam.The historical Adam is apparently important for fundamental Christian theological reasons, which is why Dr. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that, “The denial of an historical Adam and Eve as the first parents of all humanity … produces a false grasp of the Gospel” and told NPR that “without [an historical] Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense…”

His basic point, shared by many others, is that, “the Apostle Paul … clearly understood Adam to be a fully historical human.”

It may surprise some that I don’t agree at all. I don’t think that Paul believed in an historical Adam.

I think that the whole notion of “historical” is a modern one, created by modern science, and that it’s this entirely modern approach that pits history against myth. Paul didn’t believe in an historical Adam or a non-historical Adam. He just believed in Adam. It’s only as modern readers that we divide things — for ourselves — into historical and non-historical.

Even ancient historians like Herodotus (5th century BC) and Josephus (1st century AD) freely mixed what we would now call history with literature. As part of their histories, they included verbatim conversations that they had no way of knowing. Similarly, they mixed history with myth, as when Herodotus writes about the phoenix in the same terms as the crocodile or when Josephus, whose life overlapped with Paul’s, describes a cow that gave birth to a lamb during his own lifetime.

So while I understand the modern inclination to ask whether or not the Adam that Paul believed in was historical, I think it’s an anachronistic question. And more than any answer to it, it’s the question itself that parts with Scripture.

[Update: John Farrell has a review on of Peter Enns’ new book, Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins, including a discussion of some issues surrounding the historical Adam. Also, Dr. Enns just posted a 40-minute lecture in which he talks about the material in his book. (5/14/2012)]

[Update 2: Along similar lines, my father, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, has a piece that I think everyone should read: “Even if every bit of the Bible were literally true, it would still be fiction because…” Read the rest. (5/31/2012)]

[Update 3: Bible Gateway has a series of four videos with four views about the historical Adam: New Videos: Did a Historical Adam Really Exist? (1/22/2014)]

Categories: Bible

Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, and the Bible

January 11, 2012 21 comments

About a year ago I chastized Pastor Joel Osteen and others for what I called “hiding behind Scripture.” In particular, Pastor Osteen had just told CNN’s Piers Morgan that he was locked into his anti-homosexual position by the Bible. He is not, and, I believe, he knows it.

Pastor Osteen just confirmed to Oprah Winfrey that he believes that “homosexuality is shown as a sin in the Scripture,” noting that he encourages people to be “willing to change and grow.”

On the other hand, when Piers Morgan asked him in October whether he supports the Biblical position of a life for a life, Pastor Osteen admitted (in this video): “I don’t know,” because the death penalty is a “complicated issue.”

In other words, Pastor Osteen doesn’t feel compelled to support everything in Scripture. He openly ignores Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Dueteronomy 19:21. He reserves the right — as we all do — to pick and choose.

This is why I don’t think there’s any merit or integrity to his argument that he is forced to condemn homosexuality because Scripture calls it a sin.

As it happens, I don’t believe that Scripture says that, but I do support Pastor Osteen’s right to interpret Scripture as he chooses.

What I don’t support is the way he presents his opinions as unbiased fact.

As far as I’m concerned, until Pastor Osteen takes responsibility for his own words, he’s no better than any other coward who hides from the people he attacks.

Bible Translation, the Ten Commandments, and the Next Generation

September 27, 2011 1 comment

I’m pleased to announce that my TEDx presentation on Bible translation, the Ten Commandments, and the next generation is on-line on and YouTube, as well as on my Exploring the Bible Videos site. Enjoy!

Categories: Bible, Judaism, other

Exploring the Bible Videos

April 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m thrilled to announce the beta version of my latest project: Exploring the Bible videos. The site is a growing collection of short text-based videos about the Bible, frequently focusing on translation issues.


The first three videos (also available on YouTube) are:

Longer than a soundbite and (much) shorter than a lecture, each video presents a single idea in two or three minutes

These first three videos mirror blog posts I’ve written on God Didn’t Say That (here, here, and here).

My hope is that these videos will be an effective way of discussing the text of the Bible, because the medium of video makes it possible to display the text as I talk about it.

Please let me know what you think.


Categories: Bible, other

“The Bible Says So” and Other Stupid Arguments

January 31, 2011 62 comments

“The Bible Says So”

Between the on-going debate about gay marriage and the recently-noted anniversary of the hugely divisive Roe v. Rade decision legalizing abortion, more people have been shouting: “The Bible says so. That’s how I know!”

Even though I respect the Bible, and even though it forms the foundation of my personal and professional life, I think the argument is stupid.

Here’s why: Everyone filters the Bible through their own personal preferences, choosing the parts they like.

Two examples will help demonstrate what I mean.

The first comes from the many people who use Leviticus 18:22 — about a “man who lies with man as with a woman” — to defend anti-homosexual positions. (For some reason, this stance seems particularly popular among mega-church leaders, who really ought to know better: Rick Warren, for example, or Joel Osteen, who recently told CNN that the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin.)

The second comes from the many people who use “thou shalt not kill” from the Ten Commandments to defend anti-abortion or anti-death-penalty positions.


It’s true that Leviticus 18:22 seems to discourage homosexuality, and though it stops short of specifically calling it a sin (which is why I think Pastor Osteen is wrong — more here), I’m not convinced by those who try to interpret the text as being about anything other than homosexuality.

But the very same section of the Bible also prohibits making clothes by combining different materials (Leviticus 19:19), technically known as sha’atnez.

So unless Pastor Warren, Pastor Osteen, and those of their ilk are willing to take a public and vehement position against wool-and-cotton clothing, I have no patience for their argument that they are locked into their anti-homosexual position by the Bible. They are not. They are choosing the verses they like, and, apparently, they like to hate homosexuality.

Similarly, Leviticus 20:13 condemns homosexuals to death, but the same punishment is mandated for people who curse their parents (Leviticus 20:9). Are those in the “it says so in the Bible” camp willing to pass laws that put children to death for speaking out against their parents?

And for that matter, Leviticus 20:10 demands the death penalty for both the man and woman involved in an adulterous relationship. Is that a law that the anti-homosexuality crowd advocates?

I believe in religious freedom, and if religious leaders want to speak out against homosexuals, I suppose it’s their right. But they are not locked into that position by the Bible. It’s their personal religious choice.

(Similarly themed passages in the New Testament, like Romans 1:26-27, are more complicated, but the same basic principal applies. Romans 1:26-27, for example, takes a negative view of both male and female homosexuality — though not actually calling either a “sin” — but in a much longer passage, starting at Romans 14:1, the same book demands tolerance and acceptance, even of sinners: “Welcome those who are weak of faith,” “[Do not] pass judgment on one another,” etc.)

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Perhaps even more than homosexuality, abortion is one of the most vexing issues of our day. Although people disagree about the details, almost everyone shares the opinion that at some point a fetus deserves the protection afforded to a human — the question just seems to be when. And the death penalty is just as divisive, with the sides remaining even further apart.

But the Ten Commandments don’t help in either case.

First of all, the original commandment doesn’t refer to “killing” but only to “illegal killing,” as in “murder” and “manslaughter.” The message in the Ten Commandments is that killing is a matter of morality. (I have more here.) So the Ten Commandments highlight the importance of getting abortion and death-penalty laws right, but they don’t provide any particular guidance regarding the details.

More to the point, though, the Ten Commandments also prohibit taking God’s name in vain, but we don’t hear religious leaders suggesting laws against that.

So again, I think religious leaders have the right to decide which of the Ten Commandments they think are important, but I also think they have an obligation to be honest with their followers. The leaders are not simply conveying Scripture. They are interpreting it as they see fit.

Hiding Behind Scripture

So when Pastor Osteen says that, “the Scripture shows that [homosexuality] is a sin,” he is being deceptive. What he means is, “my interpretation is that homosexuality is a sin.” When Pastor Warren spends his money to oppose homosexuality (and not, say, to advertise Romans 14:13: “so let us no longer pass judgment on one another”), he is not a neutral interpreter of Scripture. He is, rather, exercising his right as a religious leader to speak about what he personally feels is important.

More generally, I’d like to see religious leaders abandon the cowardice of hiding behind Scripture and admit that they are picking and choosing from the Bible, opting only for what’s important to them.

All I Ask

August 26, 2009 4 comments

The Jewish month of Elul is traditionally connected to Psalm 27. And with its familiar haunting melody, the 4th verse of the Psalm is particularly well known: “I ask only one thing of God — it is what I want: To live in God’s house all the days of my life, to gaze upon God’s glory, and to visit God’s Temple.”

The nuances of the words — is it “glory” or “beauty,” “visit” or “seek,” etc. — are less interesting to me than the obvious contradiction in the line, because after specifically claiming only to want “one thing,” the Psalmist lists three: The Psalmist wants (1) to live in God’s house, (2) to gaze upon God’s glory, and (3) to visit God’s Temple.

What are we to make of this? Why can’t the Psalmist count to one?

I see insight into the nature of being human and wanting.

The Psalmist wants to live in God’s house not just for the sake of being there, but for what it will lead to, namely, seeing God’s glory. The next lines, verse 5-6, continue in a similar vein: …because in times of trouble God will hide me and keep me safe, bring me safely out of reach, and bring me victory over my enemies who are all around me. The Psalmist has the whole thing planned out. If he can only manage to live in God’s house, he’ll see God’s glory, then get God’s defensive protection, which will naturally lead to an offensive victory over his adversaries. “If only I could live in God’s house,” the Psalmist thinks, “I could finally beat them!”

The Psalmist has perpetrated his own internal bait-and-switch on himself, confusing what he wants with how he will get there. The result is a jumble in his mind, with tranquility, Godliness, safety, and retribution all mixed up.

It seems to be human nature to confuse our desires with the paths that might lead to them, and advertisers exploit this trait of ours.

Coca Cola’s website, for example, displays a prominent image of a Coca Cola bottle with the caption “open happiness.” Who wouldn’t like a little more happiness? The advertising at Coca Cola nudges us into thinking that Coke will lead us in that direction. Next thing we know, we get confused between buying Coke and becoming happier.

Most of the material goods we think we want work the same way. We get confused and think that they are a path to happiness. Then when we buy something and it doesn’t make us happy, we come to the reasonable but wrong conclusion that we have bought the wrong thing. Like Charlie Brown — who is the only one who doesn’t know that Lucy will never cooperate — we think that all we have to do is try again and buy something else. Most of us keep stumbling, and we never learn that what we really have to do is play a different game.

Non-material desires are really no different. We want power, a loyal following, recognition, or what-not, but for what we imagine they will lead to, not for what they are.

I have nothing against money or material possessions. (As the Russians say, it’s better to be healthy and rich than sick and poor.) Money can buy really important things like medicine and education and food, and make it easier to visit friends and fix the world, just to name a few benefits. On a smaller scale, if buying new clothes makes you happy for a day, it seems like money well spent.

We just have to be careful not to get confused. The Psalmist’s mistake is not that he wants to be with God or that he wants to defeat his enemies. His error is right at the start of verse 4: “I ask only one thing.”

We are seldom seeing clearly when we think that our lives lack only one thing or that with the addition of one thing our lives would be perfect. Yet even without the incessant prodding of advertisers, it would be part of our very nature to make this mistake. Ignore it, and we can’t even notice when “one” is “three.”

But once we see past it — once we differentiate between what we want and what we think it will do for us — we begin our journey toward spending our time, money, and energy wisely.

Categories: Bible, spirituality