Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The "aha" moment - Biblical Scholars Tell Their Stories. Part 7: Christopher M Hays

Part seven of Peter Enns' series of posts from Biblical scholars from a fundamentalist or evangelical background relating the moment when their detailed study of the Bible showed that the fundamentalist approach to exegesis was untenable comes from Christopher Hays, a New Testament scholar who teaches at Fundación Universitaria Seminario Bíblico de Colombia. For Hays, his moment came during his investigation of 2 Peter 2:15 which describes Balaam as the son of Bosor, a reading which not only is at variance with what the source text in Numbers describes (Balaam son of Beor) but one which he believed his studied confirmed "makes no sense at all".

In 2 Peter 2:15, the author asserts that wrongdoers had "left the straight road and have gone astray, following the road of Balaam son of Bosor, who loved the wages of doing wrong". However, Balaam in Numbers 22:5 is described as being the son of Beor. Not all existing copies of 2 Peter agree on this point, with some agreeing with Num 22:5 in writing "Balaam son of Beor." However, there are only a minority, and most of the early manuscripts support the reading "son of Bosor." Respected NT textual critic Bruce Metzger noted:
The reading Βοσόρ, a name not found elsewhere, is strongly supported by almost all Greek manuscripts, and by most early versions. The reading Βεώρ, found in B 453 vgmss syrph copsa arm, is the prevailing spelling of the Septuagint. The singular reading of א* (Βεωορσόρ) is no doubt due to the conflation of Βοσόρ with a marginal correction -εωρ. [1]
Therefore, given that Bosor is an older reaching backed by most manuscripts, it is quite likely to be the original reading, with Beor being a later correction to bring it into line with Numbers. 

Hays' moment came in 2003 when he was a graduate student helping his mentor Gene Green on his commentary on 2 Peter and Jude  by cataloging textual variants in 2 Peter. Hays notes:
Now most textual variants are tremendously insignificant, which is why, when I found a slightly-less-insignificant one in 2 Peter 2:15, I felt a rush of nerd adrenaline.
2 Peter 2:15 mentions false teachers who have gone astray like Balaam, the prophet from Numbers 22:5 who was hired by King Balak to curse the Israelites. Some manuscripts of 2 Peter 2:15 called him “Balaam son of Beor” (which is what Numbers 22:5 calls him); other manuscripts of 2 Peter 2:15 call him “Balaam of Bosor,” which, as we’ll see in a moment, makes no sense at all.
“Beor” is a person’s name; it was the name of Balaam’s dad (his patronymic). Bosor is the name of a city (a.k.a. Bosorra). The problem is: the older, better manuscripts called him “Balaam of Bosor,” but Balaam wasn’t from anywhere near Bosor, which is in the land of Gilead. According to Numbers 22:5, Balaam was from “Pethor, which is on the Euphrates, in the land of Amaw.”
Later copyists, therefore, changed “Bosor” to “Beor” so that the text makes more sense. So I asked myself, why did the author of 2 Peter call him “Balaam of Bosor”? I poked around, and then an answer suggested itself.
If you are a normal person, reading text criticism is about as much fun as un-sedated dental surgery, but I’m asking you nicely to hang with the next couple of paragraphs to see how I came to understand that the author of 2 Peter was himself confused about a historical detail.
The basic problem is that there was another guy in the Old Testament whose name sounded a lot like Balaam’s. Instead of being “Balaam son of Beor,” his name was “Bela son of Beor.”
The name Beor actually occurs in a genealogy (a king-list) that is copied three times in the Old Testament (Gen 36.33; 1 Cor 1.44; Job 42:17c [LXX only]). That genealogy mentions a king whose name was “Bela son of Beor,” who in turn was succeeded by a guy from the city of Bosorra (Bosor). And in one version of the genealogy (the LXX of Job 42), the king “Bela son of Beor” is actually called “Balak son of Beor”.
Now the King Balak son of Beor in this genealogy is a different King Balak (of Moab) than the one that hired Balaam son of Beor in Numbers. But you can see how people might get confused: same patronymic, similar sounding first names. You’re probably confused already! And so were some ancient Jews.
In fact, when you read the genealogy in ancient Aramaic translations of the Old Testament (the “targums”), which were already popular at the time of Jesus, you can see that they sometimes actually changed the name of King Bela/Balak son of Beor to Balaam son of Beor.
Since there was already a history of confusion over the Balaams and Balaks and Beors in the Numbers story and the genealogy, it seemed really understandable that the author of 2 Peter would be caught up in the flow and reproduce the same mistake.
What more natural way is there to explain the fact that he used “Bosor” instead of “Beor” than to say that he mixed up the patronymic of one person in the genealogy with the similar sounding hometown of the next person in the genealogy? [2] (Emphasis in original)
Trivial problem? Well, if you believe that every single word of the Bible was directly dictated by God to the human writers, you have a problem as this means the author of Numbers was inspired to write one thing, while the author of 2 Peter was inspired to write something that contradicted what was written in Numbers.

In order to evade the implications that the author of 2 Peter may have had a lapse of memory, some commentators have resorted to arguing that the author of 2 Peter is making a pun on the Hebrew word for flesh (basar). Thomas Schreiner is representative of those who make this argument:
The attribution perplexes us because the name appears nowhere else. Some commentators assume that Peter made a mistake here. We have already noted, however, Peter’s penchant for playing on words. He continued to do so here. The word “Bosor” likely derives from a pun on the word “flesh” (basar) in Hebrew. [3]
This is hardly likely if only because Peter's audience would fail to pick up a pun that relied on a knowledge of Hebrew. As Gene Green notes:
A common explanation of Peter’s Βαλαὰμ τοῦ Βοσόρ (Balaam tou Bosor) is that the author wishes to play on the Hebrew בָּשָׂר (bāśār, flesh), styling Balaam as the “son of flesh,” thus impugning his character (Bauckham 1983: 267; M. Green 1987: 125; Moo 1996: 128; Schreiner 2003: 354).5 Later Jewish tradition did play on Balaam’s name (b. Sanh. 105b says, “Balaam denotes that he corrupted a people [בָּלַה עַם, bālah ʿam]. The son of Beor [denotes] that he committed bestiality [בְּעִיר, bĕʿîr].” However, the particular ascription found in 2:15 would be unparalleled (Bigg 1901: 284). We are left to wonder why Bosor would be used instead of Bāśār, the transliteration of the Hebrew for “flesh.” In either case, would the first readers have any hope of understanding this oblique critique? [4]
Exactly. This fact alone makes this argument untenable. Green continues by arguing that perhaps Peter is referring to Balaam's home town:
However, Peter may be referring not to Balaam’s father but to the place from which he came. A city called Bosor was located in Syria (not to be confused with Bozrah, located southeast of the Dead Sea), and according to Num. 23:7, Balaam came from Aram, the state around Damascus. Likewise, Num. 22:5 locates Balaam at Pethor “near the river, in his native land,” Pethor being situated west of the Euphrates in Aram. Though the descriptions of Aram’s location are “noticeably vague, they suggest the general region that included central Syria and extended to the Euphrates” (T. L. Brensinger, ABD 5:288). Although no other text identifies Balaam with Bosor, Balaam is associated with this region. What appears to some as “ ‘Peter’s’ mistake” (Kelly 1969: 343) could, in fact, come from someone who knew the region and the whole Balaam story quite well.
Arguing against that is the motivation for the author of 2 Peter to make reference to Balaam's home town rather than his father. Furthermore, as Hays points out, the cities of Bosor and Pethor are hardly close together. Green continues, citing Hays' argument:
Hays (2004), however, takes a different tack. He notes that Balaam’s home was Bezer, a city in Aram (Num. 23:7), and this city was called Βοσόρ (Bosor) in 1 Macc. 5:25, 36. However, “in the 14th century B.C.E. (the approximate era in which the Balaam events took place) Bezer was an independent Canaanite city kingdom … and thus could not be Balaam’s hometown.” Balaam is identified rather with Pethor (Deut. 23:4), a city some 550 km (342 miles) distant from the Canaanite Bezer (Hays 2004: 106). Hays (2004: 105) forwards another suggestion, arguing that “the development of the Balaam traditions in tandem with the Edomite king-lists of Gen 36:32, 1 Chr 1:43, and Job 42:17d (LXX only) reveals a tightly intertwined history that paved the way for the unintentional replacement of Βεώρ with Βοσόρ. The confusion of numerous other names and places associated with the two titles in the Septuagint and Targums witness to a trajectory which culminated in the textual variants of 2 Peter 2:15.”
Irrespective of how we resolve this problem, as Hays notes, this subverts the fundamentalist idea that the original autographs are inerrant as "in 2 Peter 2:15, for example, the most-original reading we have is the more problematic one; the later manuscripts in 2 Peter 2:15 are the ones that are without error!". Hays continues:
Then came my “Aha” moment: I realized that I thought Peter had made an historical mistake, and I realized that it didn’t make me trust the message of Scripture less. The agenda of 2 Peter (to say that false prophets in his day were doing bad things, like Balaam did) is not remotely altered by the author’s snafu about Balaam’s surname.
In this case (though not in every case) the veracity of the theological message is in no way dependent upon the historical detail of the Old Testament illustration used to underscore the point. So I saw no reason to doubt 2 Peter’s criticism of the false teachers because of this tiny lacuna in his historical knowledge. (Emphasis in original)
It is quite easy to understand Peter making a minor slip when quoting from memory. Certainly inspiration did not give Paul perfect memory. In 1 Cor 1:14 he states that he only baptised Crispus and Gaius, corrects himself shortly after in v16 when he states that he did baptise the household of Stephanus, then finishes by saying that he did not recall baptising anything else. Inspiration allowed Peter to write an epistle that was profitable for instruction and reproof. Minor oversights such as those in 2 Pet 2:14 do not impact on this.

Once again, this is where fundamentalism and Biblical literalism destroy faith, in that they tend to create a faith that lives in fear that facts such as this will destroy the basis of our faith. That is nonsense, as Hays notes:
...just because you can’t guarantee the historicity of every genealogical detail doesn’t mean that Jesus’ body is moldering in a tomb somewhere. There’s a ton of middle ground between those extremes, and evangelical biblical scholars (as well as non-evangelical Christian biblical scholars) can and should be (and are!) involved in mapping out that middle ground....
While our community has produced few Biblical scholars of renown, this does not stop us from participating in this process indirectly by availing ourselves of the best of this scholarship and critically engaging with it in order to answer these questions. Our task, as Hays puts it is to "seek the perfection Scripture has, rather than the perfection we would demand of it."

1. Metzger, Bruce Manning, United Bible Societies. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.). London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994.
2. Hays C.M., "aha" moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (7): Christopher M. Hays Peter Enns: Rethinking Biblical Christianity  July 11 2014
3. Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude (vol. 37; The New American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 354.
4. Gene L. Green, Jude and 2 Peter (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 289–290.