Hector Avalos and Careful, Non-Selective Citation of Sources

On Debunking Christianity, Hector Avalos has posted a response to my critique of his post A Reply to Hector Avalos’ “Why Flannagan Fails History”. His latest post is entitled Flannagan Versus Westbrook: Understanding the Problem; it pretty much repeats points I have addressed in my critique, basically Avalos pretends I did not answer them.

In the comments section, Avalos pretty much admits that Westbrook holds the view I maintained he does. When a questioner asks Avalos about the lex talionis he stated:

“This is a highly contested issue. Some think that the literal interpretation could still be held even in post-Christian Jewish texts (I cited some in my initial post). Westbrook believes that both the literal and monetary co-existed, each applied depending on circumstances, in the biblical period.”

Compare this with my comment to Max explaining my position:

“Westbrook argues that serious wrongs “gave rise to a dual right in the victim or his family, namely to take revenge on the culprit, or to make composition with the culprit and accept payment in lieu of revenge”. He goes on to note, “[t]his right was a legal right, determined and regulated by the court”. The courts could “fix the level of composition payment” making “revenge a contingent right, which was only revived if the culprit failed to pay”.

When talionic legal formulae occur in A.N.E. legal texts they merely express that the punishment be proportional to the crime. This could involve punishment in kind (which would be proportional to the crime) but in most cases it would probably involve monetary compensation.”

Avalos is aware of my dialogue with Max as he quotes from it in his post. Readers will note the position he now attributes to Westbrook. This is almost exactly the view I said Westbrook held in my response yet, oddly, this comment by Avalos occurs under a post he entitled “Flannagan versus Westbrook” where he continues to argue to Debunking Christianity’s readers that I misrepresented Westbrook’s position.

I am flat tack with mid-semester marking at the moment, in the coming month I have two conferences looming I am giving papers to, I am moderating a panel discussion and speaking in another so unfortunately I cannot respond to all of Avalos’ claims. However, I do want to address one objection he raised in Why Dr. Flannagan Fails History, Dr. Hector Avalos Responds, which was part of  Avalos’ case that I engaged in “a very selective and uncritical reading of the sources” I cited to support my position:

“As it is, Flannagan might need to update his Copan readings. On page 121 of Is God A Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), Copan reluctantly admits that Deuteronomy 25:11-12 might be “the only biblical instance of punishment by mutilation.” So now Copan has gone from arguing that the Bible represented an advance over other cultures that practiced legal mutilation to making a case for the Bible’s superiority because it might have ONLY ONE case of mutilation for a poor woman helping to save her husband. What a magnificent improvement.”

MirrorThe conclusion people are supposed to draw from this is that I am unaware of Copan’s latest writings. However, as my readers know, I have read Copan’s book (Paul sent me an electronic copy before it was published because he wanted my feedback on the manuscript; he also sent me post publication electronic and hard copies as well). It is worth comparing Avalos’ citation, and summary with a copy and paste from the original, as it is revealing to do so. Here is what Copan actually says on page 121:

“At first blush, this passage apparently requires that a woman’s hand must be cut off if she seizes the genitals of the man fighting with her husband—and scholars typically take this view. Now, if this were the case, it would be the only biblical instance of punishment by mutilation;… A more plausible interpretation of this passage is the punishment of depilation (“you shall shave [the hair of] her groin”), not mutilation. The word commonly translated “hand [kaph]” can refer to the “palm” of a hand or some rounded concave object like a dish, bowl, or spoon or even the arch of a foot. The commonly-used word for “hand” (yad) isn’t used here. It would be strange to cut off the “palm” of a hand!”

Avalos has taken Copan’s comments, “if this were the case, it would be the only biblical instance of punishment by mutilation”, and he has snipped off “if this were the case, it would be” and has presented the snipped quote to his readers so that looks as though Copan believed that it actually was the case,

“Copan reluctantly admits that Deuteronomy 25:11-12 might be ‘the only biblical instance of punishment by mutilation.’”

Avalos then proceeds to ridicule Copan for holding to the view he has falsely attributed to him. Not only did Copan not say what Avalos attributed to him but in the text, still on page 121, Copan affirms only a few lines later that he quite clearly does not hold to this position. He then proceeds to argue against it.

Now I put to you that it is highly implausible that this is a misreading on Avalos’ part. This appears to be a deliberate fabrication created by snipping half a sentence and then putting words in front of it to change its meaning.

It is hard to believe that anyone who read the original, especially someone who read the whole chapter, would have thought Copan was saying what Avalos says he did.  It appears as though Avalos has choosen to misrepresent the views of another scholar on Debunking Christianity deliberately.

Of course most of Loftus’ readers will not have read Copan and I am sure it is rhetorically powerful to engage in these kinds of strategies, but I’ll leave my readers to judge whether they think this counts as a sound critique.


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