Lecture calls Christians to acknowledge violent Bible texts
By Daniel C. Houston
A new Baylor professor and author challenged Christians at a public lecture Wednesday to grapple with passages that appear, at least on the surface, to encourage violence and indiscriminate warfare.
Dr. Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history, argued some Christians too often criticize Islam for violent passages in its scriptures while turning a blind eye to passages from the Bible that called for “herem,” or absolute destruction of societies in the Old Testament.
Jenkins, laying out the thesis of his new book, “Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses,” said these passages should be read as a warning for the Jewish people to remain faithful to God, rather than a license to commit aggression.
“Where people are reading the Bible wrongly, in my view, is they are reading the Bible absolutely differently from the way it’s written,” Jenkins said. “How it’s written is the herem ‘threat’ … is meant to apply not to foreign people, but to the Israeli people themselves. If you betray monotheism, terrible things will happen to you.”
Approaching the text without trying to understand the message the authors were trying to portray has misled some Christian scholars, Jenkins said. He said many acts of historical violence, including the 1994 mass killings in Rwanda, have been mistakenly justified on religious grounds.
“Ultimately,” Jenkins said, “I think what we have to do is to read the Bible as it stands and try to understand why they are presenting this message, why the writers are presenting this story. When you read it in this way, I think … you realize the absolutely abominable foolishness of people who would take the scripture as a justification for any form of violence.”
Dr. Elizabeth Davis, executive vice president and provost, said Jenkins’ book “provides a vital framework for understanding both the Bible and the Quran.”
At the lecture, history professor Dr. Andrea Turpin asked Jenkins whether he thought the violent passages in the Quran should be interpreted in the same manner as he suggested the Bible should. In response, he said Muslims have historically interpreted the Quran in various ways, but the Quran should also be understood in terms of the intended message.
“If Christians and Jews do not acknowledge these [violent] texts are there,” Jenkins said, “what basis do they possibly have to speak honestly to people of other religions about violence? But also, what right, what ability, do Christians in the northern world have to speak to those new churches that are newly discovering the Bible in Africa, in Asia?”
The bulk of Jenkins’ lecture highlighted violent passages of scripture that are commonly attacked by critics of Christianity, including the story of Joshua’s army attacking Jericho.
“If there’s one thing we know from this book, it’s ‘Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down,’” Jenkins said. “We don’t normally go on to part two of that, which is, ‘And the children of Israel entered the city and killed every man, woman, child and dog, except for one family.’” Jenkins said readers should not ignore these violent passages, but instead should examine them for the writers’ intent.
Jenkins joined the Baylor faculty last month after teaching more than 30 years at Pennsylvania State University.
Although he was a distinguished fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion prior to January, Davis said his new capacity will better enable Jenkins to be a valuable resource for students.
“In this role, he’ll contribute to our university life in a variety of ways,” Davis said. “He’ll be collaborating with his colleagues in ISR, as well as in the history department, on a number of different research initiatives, symposia and conferences related to global and historical studies of religion. He’ll also teach and work with graduate students in the history department.”